Debates Need a Makeove
at birth: The set of Weakest Link…and a Democratic
Last week, on the morning after the first of six debates between
presidential candidates sponsored by the national Democratic Party,
I called the press office of the Democratic National Committee.
I said. "My name is Matt Taibbi. I’m a columnist for The
Beast. I have a question: What genius decided to hold the
first debate at the same time as the opening game of the NFL
Dial tone. I’ve been getting that a lot lately.
I was watching the debate last Thursday, I was reminded of a Richard
Pryor routine about meeting Ronald Reagan while shooting Superman
III: "I met the president. We in trouble."
debate, the first ever to be held at least partly in two languages
(it was held by Governor Bill Richardson and the Congressional
Hispanic Caucus in New Mexico), was an embarrassing spectacle for
the Democratic Party, revealing most all of the candidates to be the
drooling, vapid morons we all expected them to be. But worse than
that, it was bad television. It was, in fact, the perfect metaphor
for the Democratic Party itself: too compromised and cowardly to be
substantive, but too pretentious and self-conscious to be good
would have preferred the substance, but given that this is
impossible in the current climate, I have an idea for spicing up the
debate format. The debates ought to be modeled after the excellent
Game Show Network vehicle Russian Roulette, a Weakest Link-type
affair where the losers are actually sucked through the floor when
they give incorrect answers.
I watched last week, I imagined moderators Maria Elena Salinas and
Ray Suarez giving their bilingual instructions to the candidates.
Each candidate will be given one minute to respond, and at the end
of a minute, a warning light will flash. Candidates will not be
interrupted unless they go past one and a half minutes. Also, as an
additional incentive, candidates who tell even one lie will be
sucked through a hole in the floor into a pit of hungry alligators.
(smiling and gesturing) Si usted miente, le aspirara en un agujero
de cocodrilos hambrientos!
Do the candidates agree to the conditions?
candidates all nod eagerly. Ten seconds later, half of them start
checking their watches.
I’ve got to meet some old buddies from my unit," says Kerry,
gathering papers and looking for an exit. "We were going to
have a discussion about real heroism…"
floor opens: thrashing, screams, tufts of hair floating upward.
smiles and collects his notes. "As a doctor, I have to go write
a prescription for change…" Whoosh: splashing,
clears his throat. "I, uh, have to go home and jerk off to
footage of the Bataan death march," he says.
He’s still standing there. The crowd begins to murmur. The senator
grits his teeth and fidgets.
kidding," he says, smiling. "What I really have to do is
go home and complete my plan for providing Real Leadership…"
thunderclap of cracking wood: half the stage opens, sucking Braun
and Gephardt in with him. A fountain of blood shoots to the ceiling.
only life were that interesting. As it was, the debate did little
but further the demeaning horseracing process that has come to
represent the sum total of "campaigning." The format, with
its one-minute mini-speeches larded with Nerf-insults and
computer-generated one-liners (Edwards, trying lamely to appeal to
Hispanic viewers, even used the "Hasta la vista" line),
was tailor-made to fit the sportswriter storyline more or less
decided upon in advance by the press. We knew going in that this
debate was going to be the one that saw the other candidates attack
the perceived frontrunner, Howard Dean, and we knew going in that we
were going to see a "kindler, gentler" Dean who would
discard his old "combativeness" and assume a more mellow,
all of this came to pass, with a few minor surprises on the
horseracing front (i.e., Kerry laying off Dean), allowing columnists
like Walter Shapiro of USA Today to rattle off the kind of
analyses that pass for political commentary these days:
usually combative [Dean] suddenly chose to blend into the
of the difficulties that Democrats face in trying to dethrone Dean
is that the attacker risks antagonizing voters and driving them to
support a candidate who remained above the fray…"
kind of analysis reduces the whole campaign process to words like
"attack," "antagonize," "above the
fray," "centrist," "left,"
"shift," "moderate," etc., all describing
strategy and various movements on the image front, none describing
general consensus in the debate post-mortems was that Dean’s
status as the frontrunner was unchanged. Analysts who came to this
conclusion must have been watching a different debate than the one I
saw. Oddly enough, I thought Dennis Kucinich was the winner. While
the other candidates deflected questions and went into ad hominem
attacks on Bush, Kucinich gave clear, unequivocal answers to each of
the questions posed.
what concessions the U.S. can make if it ends up seeking U.N.
support in Iraq, Kucinich was the only one who didn’t simply blast
Bush for not asking for U.N. help in the first place; he answered
right away that the U.S. can’t expect foreign troops to serve
exclusively under U.S. command, and said we have to "bring the
troops home" and let the U.N. in. (To be fair, Dean also said
that he wouldn’t have U.S. troops serving under U.N. command). On
NAFTA and the WTO, Kucinich said flatly that he would cancel both
his first day in office. Noting that the other candidates’
proposals for altering NAFTA to include labor standards would
violate the WTO, he said that unless you cancel both agreements,
"all of this is just talk."
was largely left out of the post-mortems because the media has
decided in advance that because he looks like Bob Denver and has no
money, he is an afterthought in this campaign. His only mention in
the Shapiro piece was a pithy description of him as a
"left-wing Ohio gadfly."
on a plane with the Dean campaign last week, I polled a number of
the reporters on several questions. One was, "What do you think
the word ‘left’ means?" And the other was, "What is
the journalistic value of horseracing?"
the first question, one reporter, who had described Dean as being
"far to the left of his rivals," explained that when she
wrote this she did not consider Kucinich, Sharpton or Braun, because
"we don’t consider them real candidates."
the second question, no fewer than four reporters said that
without horseracing, someone like Kucinich might win. "Hell, if
it came down to a battle of position papers, Kucinich might
win," said Jackson Baker of the Memphis Flyer, one of
the true good guys in the press pool.
Silva of the Orlando Sentinel had a similar take: "I
think that horseracing is important because it tells a reader why
I’m spending so much time with this or that candidate, with a
Howard Dean instead of, say, a Dennis Kucinich."
next day, Silva ran an article containing a quote from former
Washington governor Booth Gardner, comparing Howard Dean to
is about one thing: the media telling us who isn’t too ugly or too
radical to run for president. It’d be nice if they let us make