Thursday, September 25, 2008

Debate or No Debate: Who Cares?

Presidential election debates have rarely provided any substantive value since they were instituted as things that voters must endure starting with the 1980 campaign. If all of them were cancelled, we really wouldn't be any worse off for it. The reasons given by the McCain campaign for his potentially not debating on Friday reveal their utterly spurious nature.

Mr. McCain seems to consider it inappropriate to engage in electioneering and debate at a time when policy decisions affecting the fate of the nation are at stake. But aren't the differences in how the candidates and their parties approach such fateful decision supposed to be what elections are all about?

This is the point at which Sen. McCain -- and much of the American public -- is misguided in his complaints about partisanship. Partisanship for the sake of partisanship -- and for the sake of nothing more than gaining power -- deserves criticism. That kind of partisanship constitutes much of modern politics, and to that extent it is unwelcome at a time of important decision making, but it is not all that partisanship concerns itself with.

Partisanship also is the manifestation of philosophical differences along a spectrum of political belief. What is the role of government in our lives? When is intervention appropriate? When not? In that regard, right now is the perfect time to strip away the irrelevant stylistic concerns that dominate current politics and get down to a broad -- if not deep (one cannot ask too much of modern politicos) -- discussion of how government should face the issues of immediate import.

Lincoln and Douglass could draw a crowd to listen to them debate substantively all day on the Kansas Nebraska Act, Dred Scott, and the like. Why can't we even imagine that Messrs. McCain and Obama could talk coherently and differentiate themselves on the current financial situation for even 20 minutes?

Pundits assure us that our debates are not about policy difference, but about "presentation and poise." Sadly, that is true. Mr. McCain's grandstanding aside, it is really not that important whether he and Mr. Obama debate tomorrow night. Whenever a debate occurs, it will almost assuredly be full of sound and feigned fury, signifying nothing.


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