Opinion by Ray D’Cruz
The Republican primary debates have been a disappointment to any serious observer. With a few exceptions, they have consistently failed to debate the issues that might allow an intellectually curious Republican voter to discern the best challenger for President Barack Obama.
How is this possible? There have been 15 debates since May, each of around 90 minutes – a staggering 25 hours of televised debate. You could be forgiven for thinking those rank and file Republicans who’ve tuned in and turned up have seen some rigorous analysis of the most serious issues confronting America. You could be forgiven for thinking that the candidates – these leading Republicans – have excoriated the usual spin to expose the raw facts relating to these issues. But you’d be wrong, because these are debates in name only.
That’s not to say the debates have failed to make an impact. On the contrary, these debates have winners and losers writ large. Rick Perry’s a loser because he could not recall the name of a government department during his famous “oops” moment. Newt Gingrich is a winner because he indignantly rejected a question about his fidelity. In these debates candidates rarely win or lose on the arguments, but if they can provide a memorable moment easily converted into a 30 second video clip, they’ll be the stand out performer, for better or worse. For the media, a debate is just the story of the debate. Today, the story from the Florida debate will undoubtedly be Mitt Romney putting on the boxing gloves and laying into Gingrich.
Debates in name only
Let’s start with the most obvious criticism that can be made about these debates: they’re not real debates. Debates have some essential characteristics:
A clear proposition. A consistent proposition means all speakers get to argue the same issues. This is inherently fairer to the speakers and allows the audience to better compare responses. The approach adopted in most of the Republican debates sees each candidate asked a different question. Sometimes the difference is slight, sometimes it’s enormous. That’s not how a debate works.
Equal speaker times: Speakers have not been getting equal times in debates. This is fundamental to a fair process. The way in which the rights of reply are being managed are allowing certain speakers to dominate air time, and others to go for long tracts of the debate without being given the chance to speak.
Clash: debates should also feature a clash or confrontation between speakers. In these debates, where speakers drawn from the same party, there is very little confrontation on substantive arguments. By and large, these speakers agree on most issues. But even where there is a substantial difference, speakers run from serious debate: Ron Paul can advocate a 0% tax rate and though none of the others agree, there’ll be no debate. Rick Perry can advocate a part-time Congress, and not even Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker who campaigns on the achievements of his tenure, will take him to task. Even the two Lincoln-Douglas style debates have been without serious analysis despite Gingrich’s attempts to don the academic robes and give everyone a lecture. The few notable showdowns in these debates have tended to be on personal or character issues.
Development of arguments: debates allow speakers to develop arguments. Arguments are typically comprised of premises, reasoning, evidence and conclusions. In the competitive parliamentary debates held at university, a succinct argument could be presented in 2-3 minutes, which is really quite economical. Yet in these debates, candidates are routinely allowed 60 seconds to answer the question (more so than present an argument) and 30 seconds to reply where a previous speaker has slighted them. Hence, there is no real depth in analysis and a lack of clear argumentation.
It’s fair to say that the media is not too serious about debate. From CNN’s embarrassing This or That? segment (“Coke or Pepsi Governor Pawlenty?”) to Fox News whipping up audience hysteria to regular commercial breaks and mid-debate “expert” analysis (because people are too stupid to make up their own mind).
They’ve mismanaged the topics, the format and their own moderation of the debates. Most of the debates to date have repeatedly returned to the same issues: tax, spending, debt, federal-state relations, illegal immigration, gay marriage, abortion, Iran, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Watch a debate from mid-2011 and then one from 2012 and you’ll see the same issues debated in the same way. The International Herald Tribune captures the repetition neatly. The only difference you’ll really notice are the more constant and defined attacks of Mitt Romney. Too few debates have been themed to encourage depth. Instead, each debate skims the same issues.
The format in most debates allows no focus. Most debates have around 50 questions fired at the speakers (with questions roughly assembled in themes). Candidates are usually allowed one minute responses to the questioner and 30-second rebuttals. Such is the haste of the broadcaster that the results are predictable: speakers who use rehearsed lines designed to maximise audience appeal or simply reframe the question to their liking are rarely held accountable for answering the question due to time pressures.
The moderators have also allowed open season on President Obama, failing to hold candidates to account for clear lies and misrepresentation. Romney, whose focus through all debates has been the president has had a field day. He’s claimed that Obama has no jobs plan, has created fewer jobs than Romney created as Governor of Massachusetts, has allowed the navy to shrink to 1917 levels, has overseen no new trade agreements, that “Obamacare” costs $1trillion and even suggested that the president’s bail out package was a “slush fund” to take care of friends (all claims have been discredited by post-debate fact checks). Despite being immersed in Washington politics, moderators generally do not challenge the speakers to justify lies and assertions.
A final criticism of some media, and Fox in particular, has been the decision to turn these debates into some kind of American Idol contest. With several exceptions, the standard impartial debate audience has been replaced with a mob that heckles and boos. When Juan Williams asked Newt Gingrich whether his advocacy of child janitors may have some racial overtones, the audience booed. When a gay soldier asked a question, they booed. When a moderator prefaced a question to Rick Perry by noting that Texas executed more people than any other state, they cheered. In these three situations, the audience acted pre-emptively. They were not interested in the argument. The media have some responsibility to design and conduct debates that improve voter knowledge. Decisions relating to format, the role of the moderator and the audience are important decisions that should not be mishandled.
The real issues
There are real issues that should be debated. These are issues that have surfaced from time to time that deserve much more attention. They are complex issues where there is genuine disagreement amongst the Republican candidate group. These issues include:
- That the US should have a flat income tax. While no Republican wants to raise taxes, some want a flat tax and some do not. Gingrich and Perry (no longer in the contest) want a flat tax, Romney and Santorum want a two-tiered system and Paul wants a 0% tax rate. Given the primacy of tax for Republicans, this issue deserves several debates in its own right.
- That military funding be subject to cuts. This is a very sensitive subject for many Republicans. Romney Perry and others have said no, without offering much justification except appeals to nationalism. Gingrich and Huntsman believe that efficiency savings can be found in the military. Perry believes that the entire approach to military including overseas bases and missions is wrong and advocated hefty cuts for military but not defence personnel. Another very interesting debate.
- That marriage should be regulated by the federal government. Satorum and Romney say yes, while Paul says no. This issue taps into the broader issue of state and federal relations and would allow a more detailed exploration of states’ rights and federal responsibilities. Again, this is a very important issue for many Republicans, especially those who prefer a black letter approach to the Constitution. This debate could also address the issue of civil unions and the rights of same-sex couples.
- That the US should intervene in Iran. Most Republicans candidates think that there should be some action undertaken in Iran, but they differ on the type. Gingrich appears to favour destabilisation through enabling dissidents, but does not want the direct strikes that Santorum advocates. Huntsman left all options on the table before his demise. Perry advocated returning to Iraq. Paul wants nothing to do with it and thinks that lessons need to be learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, a debate on Iran would open up analysis on Iraq and Afghanistan, and also US relations with Israel and the Arab Spring. Given that all candidates (bar Paul) agree that this is the most pressing matter in international relations, a debate on the subject should be welcomed.
These are important issues for curious Republicans, and themed debates on each would allow rank and file members a much better opportunity to discern their preferred candidate. No doubt there are other issues that also merit debate. Black and Latino issues seem under-represented in the debates so far.
Issues such as energy, health and immigration are difficult to debate given the consensus and the likelihood that each speaker would simply spend their time attacking the President. So these topics are best left to the style of debates outlined earlier. Yes, for all of the criticism of their terrible approach to hosting debates, we can still throw CNN and Fox a bone.