Bad ideas can get into circulation through faulty logic based on entirely accurate facts. Consider the recent presidential debates.
Most voters, especially those outside the states of Iowa and New Hampshire, aren't much taken with this presidential campaign. A poll released a few days ago by Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy found that 65 percent of Americans called the campaign "boring," compared with only 9 percent who said it was "exciting."
From these findings, a leap is taken: These debates must be a failure because they haven't caught the voters' imaginations. Already, phrases such as "debate-mad" are creeping into the coverage, suggesting the candidates are forcing us to watch too many televised encounters. We in the press, of course, are the same people who criticize candidates when they refuse to debate and pillory them for relying instead on 30-second "attack ads."
In fact, every one of these candidates--Bauer, Bradley, Bush, Forbes, Gore, Hatch, Keyes and McCain--deserves a measure of public gratitude for going through this debate marathon. That much-cited Harvard study, a weekly survey of voter interest in the campaign, suggests citizens may feel this way themselves. The proportion of Americans who said they had thought about the campaign more than tripled--to 34 percent during this month's debate-heavy week, up from 11 percent the week before.
The debates have also taught us a great deal:
The two political parties have strikingly different priorities. Republicans debate endlessly about tax cuts. The Democrats debate endlessly about health care. Education comes up more in Democratic debates (though Bush likes to talk about it, too). The state of the culture and the decline of "traditional values" come up more in Republican debates. Democrats talk a lot about time pressures on working parents and child care. Republicans talk more about family life as a moral issue.
The Republicans have big differences over taxes. The point need not be belabored because it has received so much coverage--thanks, in large measure, to the debates. Steve Forbes is for gigantic tax cuts, George Bush is for very big tax cuts and McCain is for smaller tax cuts (Alan Keyes wants to abolish the income tax altogether while Orrin Hatch and Gary Bauer fall somewhere toward the Bush-Forbes side.) This is an argument that really matters to the future of the country, and the Republican Party.
The Democrats have big differences in how they see the presidency. Bill Bradley says a president should stake out bold positions and bring the country and Congress around to his view. His proposals on health care and gun registration are good examples of this. Gore criticizes Bradley's plans on health care and guns as unrealistic. Gore has a longer list of programs, and he's prepared to make them more modest to get them passed. Bradley thinks this election, like Ronald Reagan's in 1980, could fundamentally change the direction of the country. Gore thinks that in its current mood, the country will respond more to nudges than to big shoves.
All the candidates seem to have been educated and improved by these encounters, not a trivial matter since one of them will be our president. The lesson is that multiple debates work and we should have them this fall. Four or five would be a fair number. The candidates should be pushed to agree to debates now, before they know where their interests will lie in the fall.
Multiple debates would also solve the problem raised by the Reform Party. Neither Pat Buchanan nor Donald Trump has an automatic right to be treated as the equal of the two major party candidates. Unlike the Reform Party, Republicans and Democrats pick their candidates through an open electoral process involving millions of voters. But Ross Perot's past voter support justifies treating the Reform candidate as more than a footnote. With four or five debates, the Reform nominee could be invited into one of them.
The great journalist Theodore H. White had this to say about the 1960 debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon: "What they did best," White wrote, "was to give the voters of a great democracy a living portrait of two men under stress and let the voters decide, by instinct and emotion, which style and pattern of behavior under stress they preferred in their leader."
In an age so shaped by television and celebrity, debates invite voters to make judgments on whatever basis they wish--on the issues, on character, or on some combination of the two--and allow candidates to make the appeals that matter to them. The debates are as close to democratic engagement as we're likely to get.