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Let’s have real debates — without the spin

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Spin alley is like nothing else in American politics. After a presidential or vice-presidential "debate," dozens of surrogates for each side come pouring into the media area where frenzied reporters are trying to file their stories on deadline and eager TV crews are jostling to go live.

Each surrogate — whether a fading Hollywood celebrity, a shouting husband-and-wife duo on opposite sides of the fence, an overpaid campaign aide or a White House staffer with a job on the line — is clamoring loudly to announce his or her candidate won the debate.

The goal is to "spin" the media and public perception on who won, regardless of what happened. And it often works.

Waving his list of foreign policy talking points provided by the campaign, an ex-secretary of state once exuberantly claimed that his candidate had outscored the rival so soundly in the debate, the rival "obviously" couldn't even pass an elementary school geography test. Meanwhile, an aging TV celebrity was seen scratching his chin and heard muttering, "I was sure that guy was dead. But he's probably right."

My response to this circus is a wistful query. "Are we ever again going to have a real debate in this country?"

The Nov. 2 election is arguably one of the most important in recent history. What do we do about Iraq? What do we do about the Middle East? Iran? North Korea? Does a soaring deficit matter? Where are the jobs going to come from if we are to maintain our economic clout in the world? Are we going to privatize Social Security? How will we provide health insurance for 44 million uninsured Americans? What are we going to do about our deteriorating roads and bridges and reservoirs? How are we going to fight terrorism? How are we going to make this country more secure? How will we live in peace with the Muslim world? How are we going to make certain our children can compete around the globe?

The three "debates" between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, with their silly 32-page list of rules including an admonition that neither man may question the other, are not the answer to our need to know what each man seriously believes and would do in the next four years as president. At the Oct. 8 "town meeting" at Washington University in St. Louis, the audience is pre-selected, the questions are pre-screened and you can bet the answers are well-rehearsed sound bites.

When the last encounter is over on Oct. 13, in Tempe, Ariz., we probably won't know much more than we know now — a lot of voters think Bush is leading the country in the wrong direction, a lot of voters aren't convinced Kerry is the right man for the job and the election will be decided by voters who won't make up their minds until the last few days before Nov. 2.

Around the world in 90 minutes, the University of Miami debate, and around the nation in 90 minutes, the Arizona State University encounter, are not comprehensive discussions. They are not proper debates with time for rebuttal and thoughtful give-and-take.

The made-for-TV encounters as engineered by the Commission on Presidential Debates have a place in a country with 280 million people, most of whom are too busy to give much time to detailed analysis of complicated issues.

But we also need a forum where candidates for the highest elective offices in the land — the offices of president and vice-president are the only ones filled by all eligible voters — engage in more adult occupations than hurling pithy slogans and insults at each other.

We could put the two candidates in a room with TV cameras (no aides) and six questioners for two hours, with each candidate permitted three minutes to answer each question and talk to the other.

We could put two candidates in a room with TV cameras, press conference style, and 60 journalists, chosen by lottery, with each candidate permitted to answer each question for one minute.

We could put two candidates in a room with TV cameras and 30 school children and a teacher calling on the children to ask questions. The next week the venue could change to a factory.

We could have actual debates with real debate rules and scorers and time limits.

It won't happen, of course, because incumbents and challengers have different agendas, because our attention span is poor, because commercial TV time is deemed precious.

But it's sad that when we think of great debates in this country we still think of the seven debates of 1858 between Steven A. Douglas, an incumbent senator seeking re-election, and Abraham Lincoln, a funny looking, gangly unknown who insisted the nation could not survive half-free and half-slave.

Lincoln lost that election but was so famous from the debates he won the presidency in 1860. In 1994 the debates were reenacted and C-SPAN covered them live.

It is unlikely that the debates of 2004 will be reenacted a hundred years from now and broadcast live to a nation with nine times as many Americans as there are now.

It is more likely that surrogates will still be revving up for Spin Alley.

Ann McFeatters is Washington Bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade. E-mail amcfeatters@nationalpress.com