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The presidential debates: Mitt, Barack, and the supersecret handshake

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Mitt and Barack are going to have a likely contentious sit-down Wednesday night at the University of Denver’s Ritchie Center. Well, probably more like a stand-up. In most past presidential debates, the contenders have stood behind lecterns. I’m guessing, because I don’t know the rules that will govern this debate. I don’t if they’ll be standing, and if so, how far apart they’ll be, and how far from the moderator. I don’t know the design or color of the lecterns or whether Barack gets the presidential seal on the front of his, or whether they’ll wear identical suits and the same color ties. I don’t even known how they’ll address each other (“Mr. President” or “you socialist swine” or “Governor” or “you flip-flopping spineless pile of rat turds”). I know they’ve been told what issues will be covered (egads!) but not what questions will be asked.

I don’t know much else other than what the Commission on Presidential Debates tells me. The commission, a non-profit and (presumably) nonpartisan organization, has been arranging the debates since 1987. But it’s remarkably silent on the details of the debates’ particulars. Neither the commission, nor Mitt, nor Barack will tell us the rules governing just about everything at the debate.

Last month, 18 good-governance and media watchdog groups demanded to see the contract governing the debates, described by the Huffington Post as “lengthy” and “secret”:

Every four years, the two major campaigns work out an elaborate contract governing everything from whether pens and pencils can be used to what kind of questions the candidates may ask each other. So far, Open Debates has been able to get its hands on the 1998 and 2004 agreements. All the other agreements have been kept secret.

Open Debates, an organization seeking full disclosure about debate rules, argues:

The presidential debates — the single most important electoral events — should provide voters with opportunities to see the popular candidates discussing important issues in an unscripted manner. Unfortunately, the presidential debates often fail to do so, because the major party candidates exert excessive control over them. … Since 1988, negotiators for the Republican and Democratic nominees have secretly drafted debate contracts that dictate how the presidential debates will be structured. The CPD, which is co-chaired by leading figures in the Republican and Democratic parties, has implemented those contracts. CPD control of the presidential debates has harmed our democracy. Fewer debates are held than necessary to educate voters. Candidates that voters want to see are often excluded. Restrictive formats allow participants to recite memorized soundbites and avoid actual debate. Walter Cronkite called CPD-sponsored debates an “unconscionable fraud.”

As we know — because news organizations, candidate advocacy groups, bloggers, and my damn barber won’t stop telling us — Mitt and Barack have hired pricey debate consultants, anointed faux stand-ins for each other, and practiced, practiced, practiced for their three secretly governed, word- and phrase-tested, spin-room-readied harangue of each other. Preparations at Denver are at fever pitch.

I can’t even begin to estimate how much money these debates will consume. Security for Mitt and Barack. Payments to debate consultants and script writers and “counter-punch” testers. Focus groups costs for testing possible “zingers” and “stingers.” Priming the post-debate echo chambers. Immediate post-debate polling on who won and who lost.

And the media costs: Journalists galore all chasing a pre-scripted story — and praying for a gaffe. The university says that more than 3,000 press credentials have been applied for — and it’s a pricey gauntlet for journalists to run for resources. And all those TV satellite trucks.

These debates will consume many millions of dollars. And for what? Do we really expect learn anything new from either Mitt or Barack?

Mitt and Barack haven’t shared much about their debate preparation. But overdoing it has a cost.

All this debate preparation makes sense for what is such a high-stakes showdown between the candidates, said Wake Forest political science professor Allan Louden, an expert on presidential debates. But it also robs the debates of some of their purpose.

The most revealing moments in a debate are when the candidates must go off-script. He points to the 1980 clash between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter when the candidates were allowed so many rebuttals they ran out of prepared material. Candidates are so afraid of making a gaffe, Louden said, they seldom seem present in the conversation. Instead, the debates have become simultaneous campaign speeches. [emphasis added]

I’d much rather Mitt and Barack meet quietly backstage and agree to skip the debate. Let a few Secret Service agents spirit them away to a diner — and Denver has some great diners. Let them park themselves at a table in a corner, loosen their ties (whose color is probably part of that secret agreement), and just talk. Have some of DU’s comm students set up a camera for an Internet feed.

Leave an open chair so that folks like you and I can sit down and ask a question. Let the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker — and the banker worried about regulation and the lawyer concerned with limits on tort suits and the farmer who can’t get a loan for spring seed and the gay woman or man who wants to get married and the student who owes tens of thousands in student loans and the single parent who has a job but needs food stamps to get by and the hedge fund manager who has concerns about taxation and the U.S.-raised child of illegal immigrants who wants to stay here and the mother whose daughter or son is still in harm’s way in Afghanistan — let them all in to demand Mitt and Barack give answers in plain English (or Spanish) to these people’s real fears rather than engage in “Mitt’s an idiot; no, Barack’s a bigger idiot” rhetoric.

Let them all stop in. Let Mitt and Barack buy them all a cup of coffee and try to answer their questions.

Let Mitt and Barack leave the consultants and the stump speeches behind. Let them talk in a diner, not preach over network television and try to out-rip each other. Mitt and Barack should speak directly to us in human and humane ways — not just respond formulaically to the questions of moderator Jim Lehrer.

Let them be casual but engaged conversationalists on the issues of the day — not ideological gladiators in a über-partisan steel-cage death match on the made-for-TV stage at DU.

Oh, well. I can dream, can’t I?

photo: Debate stage preparations at the University of Denver | Mark Harden, Denver Business Journal

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 2, 2012 at 7:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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