Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Great Debate

Last night's Democratic Debate was, well, a debate - an adult affair in which serious people talked about serious issues - in almost every respect the opposite of the adolescent "debates" the opposing party has sponsored so far, full of name-calling, high-school caliber insults, and dramatic refusals to deal with existing realities, like climate change and the actual balance of power in the world. Just watching candidates discuss - and disagree - seriously and civilly was a poignant reminder of what democracy once meant.

Even the minor candidates, whose substantive contributions were relatively minimal, managed to look and sound more presidential than many of the contestants in the previous "debates." Since the candidates were not acting primarily as entertainers, there were fewer standout moments. The most memorable such moment was, I suppose, when Bernie Sanders dismissed the media-driven Clinton email "scandal," to the rapturous applause of most of the audience. The media, of course, lives by its own set of self-induced obsessions. So we are not likely to see a dramatic change in the coverage, at least not in the short term. But at least ordinary Democratic voters got a chance to express their desire for a campaign focused on the pressing problems currently afflicting our country rather than on the personality and scandal-oriented obsessions of the elite media class.

Hillary Clinton obviously had a great night and probably further solidified her position. Her performance showed the value of years of experience and careful attention and preparation. Bernie Sanders kept bringing the discussion back to his core concerns, which highlight much of what really ails the country. Undoubtedly it is thanks to him that economic inequality and its social and moral consequences has become so much more prominent as an issue. And he is correct, of course, in his diagnosis of the socio-economic and moral source of so much of our contemporary distress - the determined undoing of the social fabric of our national community that began with the election of 1980. He is probably also right in his view we would all be better off with Medicare for all - as Richard Nixon was once willing to propose in 1973.

I have mixed feelings about "debates," having lived through the whole history of such events - as an ordinary citizen, then as a political scientist, and now as an ordinary citizen again - since their modern origin in 1960. They can easily degenerate into theatrics, and too much can stand or fall with one ill-chosen sentence. (Remember what happened when President Ford inadvertently liberated Poland in his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter!) On the other hand, they are the one and only opportunity for candidates to challenge each other directly and to engage each other in a conversation that is at least potentially not completely scripted beforehand. And there is certainly something to be said for that!

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