Democrats’ presidential debates and constituency-coddling

Mark Shields's picture

University of Kansas professor and respected scholar on the subject Diana Carlin said it best about presidential debates: They are the “only time you have the (presidential) nominees in the same place, the only time you can really get to compare them. ... I equate it to a job interview that gives voters the chance to really assess who would be the best president.”

As proof of voter interest in presidential nominee debates, in 1980 63 million viewers tuned in to hear President Jimmy Carter and Challenger Ronald Reagan make their respective cases.

So what about 2007, when the Democratic presidential candidates seem to be debating every other Tuesday on one cable channel or another? Well, the largest debate audience up to now has been for the New Hampshire event at St. Anselm College on CNN in June — a whopping 2.7 million people. The recent AFL-CIO candidates’ forum in Chicago on MSNBC pulled just 914,000.

The problem for the Democrats is not the crowds their would-be presidents are not attracting, but instead the overall impression being created of a party and candidates as a confederation of interest groups to be coddled and not of a single nation to be challenged.

In addition to the organized labor forum and the gay and lesbian forum and appearances before black journalists and liberal bloggers, Democratic candidates will almost certainly answer summons for command performances before seniors, Hispanics, environmentalists and any other organized group willing to make non-negotiable demands upon the party.

It’s probably only a matter of weeks until the Irish-Jewish Home for the Incredibly Short or Transvestite Taxidermists Against the Metric System announces the acceptance by the eight Democratic candidates of their debate invitations.

Let’s be frank. General election debates can be, and frequently have been, revealing of how the two (or, rarely, three) nominees respond to pressure or scrutiny. But there is no real debate when there are eight contestants on the stage.

What you have, instead, is a series of mostly rehearsed set pieces designed, too often, to please the questioners and the sponsors.

Long-shot Dennis Kucinch, after being congratulated at the gay and lesbian forum by one of the questioners for his unflinching and categorical support of the group’s issues wish list, cut to the chase and bluntly told his audience that if they wanted his continued championing of their cause, to “keep their contributions” coming.

Who will be the first major candidate to refuse a debate invitation — other than an event sponsored on Fox News, which all have already turned down? Candidates hate these debates, which mean they lose control of their own schedules. They cannot go to Sioux City or Manchester when they and their campaign believe they need to. No, for every debate, a couple of days must be set aside for preparation, and then there’s travel to and from the venue.

Most threatening to the prospects in November 2008 for the party’s eventual nominee is the mosaic of unhelpful impressions created and reinforced after all these sponsored debates of Democrats leadership as slavishly beholden to a pushy, noisy confederation of interest groups.

Continued cattle shows featuring Democratic candidates not speaking to all voters at the same time, but competing to caress all the erogenous zones of the body politic, is a surefire formula for snatching presidential defeat from the jaws of victory in 2008.

You could get a glimpse of real potential leadership from the first Democratic candidate who says, “No,” loud and clear to the next must-attend debate invitation.


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