Wednesday, May 31, 2006

NJ Senate: A "virtual debate" is no debate at all

Yes, there will be a "debate" in the New Jersey US Senate race -- but not the kind we're used to. This, from an Associated Press dispatch earlier today:
TRENTON, N.J. -- Candidate debates are standard fare in American politics.

But when the back-and-forth is confined to a Web site, it's called a virtual debate, a new political phenomenon that will be tried in New Jersey's U.S. Senate race beginning in July.

The Hall Institute of Public Policy, a nonpartisan policy think tank, plans to host the virtual debate on its Web site. The expected nominees in the race are Republican state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. and Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.

"The virtual debate will provide a platform to sort out ideas and work collectively toward solutions," Hall Institute founder George E. Hall said Wednesday.

The debate is expected to work like this: A question will be posed to each campaign every two weeks. Their responses will be posted and the campaigns can then respond to the opposing candidate. Viewers also will be able to post comments.

The Hall Institute expects to get through about eight questions before the November election.
This is silly.

This is not a "debate" between the two candidates, and it will not "provide a platform to sort out ideas and work collectively toward solutions."

This will be a test of the two candidates' communications gurus and their ability to skewer their opponents rhetorically, nothing more. The result will be poll-driven, focus-group-tested mush.

It is axiomatic that a "debate," in the modern American political context, is not really a "debate" at all -- at least not the kind of debate our high school civics teachers taught us about, where two candidates face off on the issues of the day, questioning each other and challenging one another's views; in the modern American political context, a "debate" is a joint press conference, where each candidate is tested on his ability to spew forth, in 60- and 90-second sound bites, the stock answers he's practiced until he's blue in the face.

Granted, our current model of "debates" leaves much to be desired -- like, say, spontaneity, for starters -- but at least they offer us some clue as to each candidate's ability to do the job to which they seek election: By putting the two candidates on display at the same time, in the same place, and in an environment where their control is minimized, current debates at least let viewers/voters see how comfortable each is in the glare of the spotlight; let viewers/voters see how well each candidate thinks on his feet; let viewers/voters see whether or not each candidate can make a coherent, if abbreviated, argument in defense of a position.

Now, with this "virtual debate," we are to be deprived even of this measly little bit.

It's not at all surprising that the two candidates in question would agree to this exercise; after all, each will be able to hone "his" "answers" to his heart's content, making sure to cross every T and dot every I before hitting the "send" key on his computer. What is surprising is that an academic institution should be the one sponsoring the "event" -- and that the academic institution should appear to be excited about it.

Embarrassing, if you ask me. On all counts.


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