11/4/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
On Oct. 21, the Sheboygan Press in Wisconsin asked its readers this question: “Have the debates among presidential candidates been useful in helping you decide who to support?”
The paper published 12 replies, six finding the debates useful, six not. Here are two opposing views:
“Even though no one I have ever given my primary vote – over several decades – has ever been elected president, I still find the whole process useful. Seeing the candidates in debate mode helps us to evaluate their mind, character and priorities. Whether their answers are direct or evasive, they can’t help but reveal a lot about themselves and provide clues as to what kind of president he or she would be. I wish everybody would watch.” – James Tobin, Town of Wilson
“The debates haven’t been very helpful, since I cannot in good faith support any of them. There’s been simply more of the same – more ex-lawyers who will spend us into oblivion; more so-called public servants who are only interested in getting elected.” – Bob Linke, Kohler
Naive me, I’m with Bob Linke. I’m always surprised that anyone with half a brain finds presidential debates useful in helping to decide whom to support. Frankly, I watch debates because of my job as a journalist, an opinion writer. If I didn’t have this job – which forces me to know who said what and who did not – no one could pay me to listen to a presidential debate.
I’m not keen on reading right-wing publications, but on presidential debates, Pat Toomey, who writes for National Review Online, has it right: “The problem with presidential debates is that they don’t tell us all that much. Candidates are programmed to hew to a strict set of talking points, rarely deviating lest they stumble into a campaign-crushing gaffe. Add a full stage of 10 candidates to the mix, and you can’t blame the networks for trying to spice things up.”
I share Toomey’s cynicism. I don’t need presidential debates to help me vote. I know who the candidates are long before they decide to run. My natural inclination is to be as informed as I can on the important issues and to know all I can about the individual candidates.
Let’s take Hillary Clinton. I have read about her and followed her career since she was the first lady of Arkansas. I’ve even read two of her scholarly legal articles. I know where she stands on health care, children’s rights, abortion and the environment. As to Social Security, I’m sure she’s wobbly because, if elected, she will appoint a bipartisan blue-ribbon committee to help her make the right decision. I don’t need a debate to know that Clinton, like her husband, will make a fine president.
I’ve read enough about John McCain and watched his career closely enough to know where he comes down on the important issues. I also read his book, Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life. I love the book, and I respect McCain’s character under pressure and his decency. Would I vote him? I don’t think so. I don’t agree with his positions on the big issues. A presidential debate won’t change my mind.
Mitt Romney? I’ve followed his career. Joe Biden? I know his Senate voting record. Rudy Giuliani? I’ve read about him since his federal prosecutor years. Then, of course, there are the other presidential candidates. I’ve done my research on them.
Currently, I’m keeping tabs on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and several U.S. senators who are dealing with important issues that are important to most Americans.
And, for the record, I’m keeping an eye on New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Thus far, he’s been making all the right moves in establishing himself as an effective leader and a smart administrator who may have national ambitions.
My point is that if Spitzer or Perry or Crist or Cuomo run for president, I’ll simply pull out my file folders and reacquaint myself with their records. For me, a presidential debate is useless.