The quadrennial discussion of all that galls right thinkers about the modern presidential cycle is divided into three parts. The first takes place before the campaigning begins and, in this, political journalists impanel themselves with learned men and the occasional learned woman (Kathleen Hall Jamieson) to agree that the public presentation of the candidates and issues in the last presidential race was a disgrace on every level, that the Republic can't take much more of this and that we are all going to do better next time.
The second phase takes place during the campaigning season, wherein everything happens exactly as it did last time--the candidates distort, oversimplify and demagogue the issues, the media ignore what is piously called the substance of the campaign to focus on who is winning and losing, and the politics of personal destruction are, sadly, once again resorted to. From a distance come the faint, sequestered complaints of the learned, but their former panel partners in the press are too busy sinning to hear the preaching.
The third phase is by way of Sunday morning after Saturday night; all the panelists meet again, the journalists bowed in contrition, the academicians puffed with moral authority, and the whole thing starts all over.
This process satisfies the critical requirement of any self-improvement program, which is to allow the self-improvers to feel better about themselves--because they really do intend to improve, and they really do feel bad about not improving after all, which is practically the same thing as improving--without suffering through the improvement itself. Anyone who has one or more exercise cycles, rowing machines or treadmills in the basement knows this dynamic well, and knows that it is harmless except that we are getting to be the size of davenports, or possibly carports, and our laundry rooms are overrun with large, gently rusting pieces of heavy metal.
In the case of presidential campaigns, though, a real danger may lurk in the urge to self-improve. What if, one of these days, in a careless moment, we forget ourselves and actually do reform? Would this be a good thing? Now is an excellent time to contemplate the question, because we are in the middle of the only one of the three phases of discussion that is rooted in reality. And the reality is stark.
A central tenet of presidential campaign improvement is that we need more serious discussion of the issues. It is agreed that the best vehicle for such discussion is a debate between the candidates (the exceptionally anomalous Lincoln-Douglas debates are reverently cited). So far in this cycle the Democratic candidates have been in six debates and the Republican candidates have been in eight. That's 14 debates before the first real vote is cast.
The notion that we need yet more debates is so much a given that Al Gore was able to use it as a reform-claiming cover for his stunt-proposal that Bill Bradley refrain from television advertising. But does anyone honestly believe this? Does anyone believe the nation needs to be exposed to more Steve Forbes, more Orrin Hatch? Do we need to hear more from Gary Bauer to know where he stands on, say, abortion? Has Alan Keyes failed to make sufficiently clear to us his views on America's moral decline? Do we not yet know that Bill Bradley thinks Al Gore is the candidate of puny ideas and that Al Gore thinks Bill Bradley is a quitter? How many more times must we watch George Bush say "That's an issue for the states to decide," before we know that he has not a clue about a thing?
At no other time in the nation's history has the electorate been so redundantly informed as it is now. We are awash in information about the candidates, about their views on the issues, about their public and private lives. Odd, then, this call for more. And especially odd coming from Gore, whose major contribution to the history of debates has been to show that a skilled demagogue can use a debate quite as effectively as a 30-second attack commercial to distort his opponent's record and malign his opponent's character.
What Gore has demonstrated about debates illustrates the problem with the improvers' campaign. There is no way to devise a process for competing for power that is wiser, fairer and more high-minded than the people who are doing the competing. And those people are not, generally speaking, wiser, fairer or more high-minded than the rest of us. Just as we do, they like to spout platitudes, to preach the same sermons over and over, to dodge the tough questions and to indulge in the occasional cheap shot. And us? We like to watch.
Michael Kelly is the editor in chief of National Journal.