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It's Wrong to Focus on Winners and Losers in the Presidential Debates


After each of the (for want of a better word) debates, the classes I teach have begun with the following scenario.

"Dr. Clifford, who do you think won the debate?"


That is, "not" to the question. "Not" to the mentality that asks the question. "Not" to the media culture that promotes it. "Not" to the journalists who hustle to poll the voters in order to report to the public what they, the public, think. "Not" to the candidates who are schooled and coached to score points against the opponent -- whether schooled and coached to show seemingly spontaneous moral indignation or schooled and coached to look condescendingly presidential.

Actually, I don't really say "not." I say that it is immoral to discuss a presidential-election debate in terms of who wins.

The only questions that are legitimate, and the only ones I am willing to discuss, are these:

* What did we find out from the debate about who would be the best president -- or the best vice president and, therefore, potential president?

* Aside from who will be elected, what did the discussion contribute to the national debate about the pressing issues that confront us?

To be sure, how the candidates hold up under the pressure of a televised debate reveals something about how they will perform in the White House. To be sure, a vigorous attack on the opponent that shows us what is wrong with his position is precisely what the free flow of ideas that the First Amendment was intended to foster is all about. To be sure, character, and not just issues, is a relevant issue -- and the single-moderator, free-flowing format lets us find out more about character than the formalized, timer-dominated, speak-to-the-light-on-the-camera version.

But, thanks to the dominance of the television, to show-biz culture and to our lack of critical capabilities, there are endless ways to score points in a televised debate that in no way demonstrate an ability that would serve the country well in office.

"Looking presidential," if it means anything, means looking good on TV. Once in office, will this candidate continue to worry about looking presidential or will he do something presidential?

And making false accusations with pietistic conviction, thereby making your opponent look bad when he denies that he is still beating his wife -- that scores points for winning a debate. In the Oval Office that trait will transform itself into self-serving accusations, deceptions, and lies launched against Congress, the media, and the American people -- government by appearance and image, rather than truth.

Scored by a thoughtless response to the images without context and the discontinuous moments of "information" that television invites, these tactics win; scored by a critical response that asks what we have learned about who will be the best president or vice president, these tactics should frighten us.

Left with the lack of clarity that the debates produced, at the conclusion of each debate I flipped hopelessly through the channels trying to find a good discussion of the issues and the candidates. I found the instantaneous reporting of polls, and a hasty return to regular programming. I found journalists asking call-in voters who won the debate, debate coaches and political pundits scoring the candidates on a score sheet.

After the second presidential debate, I found one network replaying parts of the debate with a graph overlay which monitored the positive and negative responses of a hundred viewers as the candidates were speaking. As an ironic metaphor, the horse-race question once upon a time seemed clever; it has long since lost its metaphorical meaning. Now it does nothing but prevent genuine discussion and heighten the entertainment orientation that American journalism has so shamelessly embraced.

In contrast, I recall some rather fiery exchanges between Gore Vidal and William Buckley about presidential candidates. They talked about who would win, but they disagreed profoundly about who would be a better president and they told us why. Regrettably their anger occasionally got the upper hand, and they occasionally resorted to school-yard threats; but their anger and their arguments had to do with what was best for the country.

Possibly the best team of political commentators on television nowadays, David Gergen and Mark Shields on Public Broadcasting's "McNeil-Lehrer News Hour," talk incessantly only about who will win the election and why, what George Bush will have to do to catch up, what Bill Clinton will have to do to maintain his lead, what effect Ross Perot will have on the race, and who won the latest debate.

Just once, I wish Jim Lehrer or Robert McNeil would ask them who they think will be the best president and why.

The American people are trying to figure out whether they ought to help Mr. Bush catch up, whether they ought to maintain support for Mr. Clinton -- and we're trying to figure out what the country needs to do to solve the monumental problems we face, no matter who gets elected.

Instead, we'll walk into the voting booths on election day with the results of the latest poll telling us who we the voters are going to vote for and a handful of debate score cards. Somehow, it seems like a play by Sartre or Samuel Beckett. We're living in a hell which we ourselves created, and Godot will never get here.

Craig Clifford is assistant professor of philosophy at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas and author of "In the Deep Heart's Core: Reflections of Life, Letters and Texas."

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