Although no genius, ABC commentator and former Clinton advisor George Stephanopoulos is not stupid. Nevertheless, he seemed like an outright doofus (or yahoo!) as host of the ABC/Yahoo New Hampshire debate on Saturday when he kept pressing Mitt Romney on the constitutionality, of all things, contraceptives.
No, that wasn’t an episode of Saturday Night Live or Fawlty Towers. It was a typical mainstream media operative, unable to control his bias, desperately seeking to expose the Republican frontrunner in some manner or to create some kind of gaffe that would damage him for the general election.
Romney, to his credit, treated the gotcha question with the proper amount of amused disdain, allowing Stephanopoulos to dig a yet bigger hole for himself and turning the audience in the candidate’s favor.
In this essentially meaningless exchange, Stephanopoulos became the poster boy for the whole debate process in which a long line of Republican candidates have paraded themselves for inspection in front of panel after panel of largely liberal media interlocutors.
Fortunately for the Republicans, those interlocutors haven’t been very good at what they do. Part of the reason is that liberal (Keynesian) economics is for all intents and purposes defunct and everybody knows that — so those liberal journalists don’t really have anywhere to go on the key issue of the campaign. Another reason may be that they are not as skilled as we, or they, think they are. A third may be that the Republicans were inflicting sufficient wounds all by themselves.
Still, the entire summa of now fifteen debates has yielded little of substance or depth. We learned that Rick Perry isn’t very good at debating (but has gotten somewhat better), that Newt Gingrich is very good at debating (but allows his thin skin to make him worse), that Ron Paul has adamant supporters and doesn’t worry about the mullahs (no surprise), that Rick Santorum is socially conservative and does worry about the mullahs (again no surprise) and that Romney makes a relatively unflappable frontrunner (probably a good trait for a president).
I suppose these somewhat minor observations were worth three, possibly four, debates. In essence, the system is in need of serious rethinking.
This is especially true for the general election. I have a recommendation — shamelessly stolen from Newt Gingrich.
Let’s put an end to the interlocutors. We don’t need media filters — left, right or center. I am not interested in Jane Pauley. I am not interested in Chris Wallace. I get to see plenty of them. I am not interested either in supposedly random questions chosen (by whom?) from Facebook or Twitter.
I am interested in the candidates and what they have to say to each other — mano-a-mano — in the style of Lincoln and Douglas.
They should be given a topic for the debate (entitlements, Iran, whatever) and be set free to examine it. Those issues can be discussed at length and in more depth without the interference of media personalities who, besides being biased one way or the other, are often more interested in the promotion of themselves or their companies.
The debaters further would not be able to hide behind their media allies, overt or covert. If the president or his Republican adversary attempts to monopolize the conversation, blows up emotionally, resorts to nasty ad hominems or simply engages in absurd argumentation, it would be exposed for all to see. Ideas and the ability to express them would be on display.
Some say the debating skills of a president are not important. While I agree they may be overemphasized, they are still significant. You have to communicate well to achieve your goals. Whatever you may think of their polices, it’s no accident two of the most successful presidents of the Twentieth Century were exceptional communicators — Ronald Reagan and FDR.
In the Lincoln-Douglas approach, their debating and thinking skills would be tested, not to mention their ideologies. And it would be great theater — far more interesting than the pabulum we have been recently served.
I doubt Barack Obama will have the guts to do it. He is an utterly conventional man who has done nothing remotely imaginative while in office that I can think of. Also, his chief strategy seems to be to demonize the Republicans, a more daunting task if you deal with one face to face
But if it does happen, I am relatively certain of one thing. There is one topic that if either party brings it up, he will be deemed a fool: contraceptives.
ADDENDUM: Another amusing view here.