Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Debates Don't Inform

After watching the vice presidential debates, I've come to the conclusion that these types of debate formats do very little to inform the public. The biggest obstacle to having an informed discussion rather than a finger pointing session is the fact that the debaters are not allowed to bring anything to the desk and/or podium. The candidates have to rely on memory and that would allow only someone with a photographic memory to have accurate statistics but even then no proof that those figures were the truth.

I think it would be a good idea to introduce computer technology to the debates. Each candidate would have a laptop with any information that they would want to project on a screen for the audience and TV viewers. Beyond that the debates should have a break to allow for a chance to search their computer for information to use in rebuttal. And of course the debates should have more than one session.

Too often in last nights debate I heard one of the candidates offer an assertion and/or statistics that are not backed up by anything at the moment. Candidates don't voice the source of the statistics they use, they quote their opponents past words almost always either out of context or inaccurate, or make bald declarations with no facts at all.

For instance Dick Cheney made this remark in a thirty second rebuttal, "Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador. We had -- guerrilla insurgency controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead, and we held free elections. I was there as an observer on behalf of the Congress."

"The human drive for freedom, the determination of these people to vote, was unbelievable. And the terrorists would come in and shoot up polling places; as soon as they left, the voters would come back and get in line and would not be denied the right to vote. And today El Salvador is a whale of a lot better because we held free elections. The power of that concept is enormous. And it will apply in Afghanistan, and it will apply as well in Iraq."

Several things jumped out at me. First, the discussion had nothing to do with El Salvador, it was what real debaters might call a red herring.

Second, his less than thirty seconds on the history of an election after a war in that country was far from complete. Did he mention that the United States backed a right wing military that had death squads that murdered priests? Did he mention that in the El Salvador elections our government had financially backed the ruling military power and that the elections had plenty of allegations of fraud? As well he failed to mention that since the end of the civil war, El Salvador has remained one of the most violent societies in the hemisphere - with a murder rate rivalled only by Colombia.

Third, if John Edwards had wanted to respond to the lack of information Cheney divulged about El Salvador he both didn't have time and would probably not have that type of information in mind as that country is certainly not on the radar of most Americans.

Then this question from the moderator, Gwenn Ifill,
IFILL: New question to you, Senator Edwards, but I don't want to let go of the global test question first, because...
IFILL: ... I want people to understand exactly what it is, as you said, that Senator Kerry did say.
He said, "You've got to do" -- you know, he was asked about preemptive action at the last debate -- he said, "You've got to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons." What is a global test if it's not a global veto?
EDWARDS: Well, let me say, first, he said in the same segment -- I don't remember precisely where it was connected with what you just read -- but he said, point blank, "We will never give anyone a veto over the security of the United States of America."

Would it not have been quite easy to run a video of the complete statement John Kerry made in the first debate? Why are the debates wasting the time of the audience with essentially an attempt to force Edwards to remember verbatim Kerry's entire words on the subject, which was several sentences? At the minimum Edwards should have been able to call up the transcripts (on his laptop) and read the statement and then add an opinion if he so desired. Ifill didn't quote the entire statement leaving Edwards to try to remember the exact words.

Later in the debate Cheney wanted the viewers to check a website,

CHENEY: Well, the reason they keep mentioning Halliburton is because they're trying to throw up a smokescreen. They know the charges are false. They know that if you go, for example, to (sic), an independent Web site sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, you can get the specific details with respect to Halliburton.

It turns out that Cheney sent people to George Soros' website who is no friend of the Bush Administration. I'll stop laughing for a second to venture that if Cheney had information at his fingertips he would not have made this mistake. With a laptop he could have had the correct website bookmarked and displayed it for the audience and as well Edwards could have had a website with Halliburton information in rebuttal.

Several questions later came the following,

IFILL: OK, then we'll move on to the next question. This one is for you, Mr. Vice President. President Bush has derided in John Kerry for putting a trial lawyer on the ticket. You yourself have said that lawsuits are partly to blame for higher medical costs. Are you willing to say that John Edwards, sitting here, has been part of the problem?
CHENEY: Well, Gwen...
IFILL: Mr. Vice President?
(LAUGHTER) CHENEY: First of all, I'm not familiar with his cases. My concern is specifically with what's happened to our medical care system because of rising malpractice insurance rates, because we failed to adequately reform our medical liability structure....

I found this question to be less than neutral, the question "Are you willing to say that John Edwards, sitting here, has been part of the problem?" could easily have been "Please define your stance on tort reform?" And the following question was just as bad,

IFILL: Senator Edwards, new question to you, same topic. Do you feel personally attacked when Vice President Cheney talks about liability reform and tort reform and the president talks about having a trial lawyer on the ticket?
EDWARDS: Am I personally attacked?
I think the truth is that what they're doing is talking about an issue that really doesn't have a great deal to do with what's happening with medical policy in this country, which I think is a very serious issue....

Edwards himself seemed surprised at how it was worded and wondered aloud if he heard it correctly, "Am I personally attacked?" The question could have been "Do you feel that tort reform will limit the ability of trial lawyers to do their job?"

Then this tired old question,

IFILL: OK, we'll move on. This goes to you, Senator Edwards, and you have two minutes. Ten men and women have been nominees of their parties since 1976 to be vice president. Out of those ten, you have the least governmental experience of any of them. What qualifies you to be a heartbeat away?

The entire debate the two candidates were basically answering this question with all their previous answers. Edwards should have slapped this question down with a smartass answer like, "Well, I run four miles a day and I haven't had four heat attacks like my opponent." But of course that would have been more impolite than the question. But the fact is that he had been discussing his viewpoints about our country, he had discussed part of his career, what is the need of this redundant question?

Another odd way of framing a question,

IFILL: OK, we'll move on. This goes to Senator Edwards. Flip-flopping has become a recurring theme in this campaign, you may have noticed. Senator Kerry changed his mind about whether to vote to authorize the president to go to war. President Bush changed his mind about whether a homeland security department was a good idea or a 9/11 Commission was a good idea. What's wrong with a little flip-flop every now and then?

She had no business defining flip flops, if the candidates wanted to use those examples they would have without any encouragement from the moderator. And actually they had been using flip flop examples in many previous questions.

Reading over the transcripts I can see numerous accusations from both candidates about the inaccuracy of their opponent, but without some actual reference material the accusations are unproven until after the debate when hopefully people will analyize the many statements. But it sure would be more enlightening at the point of contention if the candidates had the ability to display for the audience on a screen their proof of contention, in addition to the opponent being able to disprove any inaccuracies of the allegation.

So who won the debates? I didn't feel either candidate won, but I do feel the voters lost. They lost an opportunity to see a much better and more informed debate.

Vice presidential debate transcript...


Blogger R said...

The laptop idea is intriguing. I think it would be a great way to convey your ideas with information to back it up.

2:53 PM  

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