Debating Debates or What Does a Debate Really Do for You?

March Primaries offer the electorate one of the worst election timetables possible, especially in Los Angeles. After millions of dollars raised and spent on one of the most expensive national elections in history, we emerge from the detritus of Election 2004 and run smack dab into Thanksgiving, bad weather, and the Christmas/New Year’s/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/(Insert Holiday Here) axis. This conspires to keep any campaign back – who the heck has time to go precinct walk when there’s shopping to be done?
But, yes, Angelenos, there is an election brewing, and what happens now will affect what kinds of choices you’ll have, and what “issues” are “discussed” in the expensive TV ads and direct mail headed your way in February.
By the time most Angelenos get out of the coma of the holidays and finally pay attention in January, we’ll be less than two months away from the first round of voting. That doesn’t leave much time for issues or characters to evolve and develop in any sort of reasonable time frame. But that’s what people want, so now it’s time to take a look at the first “Big Issue” of Campaign 2005: Debating Debates.
You may be confused. Perhaps you thought there was some problem with the number of police officers on the streets of LA, or you’re an anxious businessperson worried about the Byzantine tax code that still needs some work. Or perhaps the scandals you read about have you concerned.
But that’s not as important as….”debates.” has a nice summation of the chatter going on about the first “big” debate of the season.
Mayor Hahn initially ducked this one, but after pressure, first from mayoral contender Bob Hertzberg’s camp, and later from Yet More Bad Publicity over Fleishman Hillard dealings, he decided to participate.
As usual, one of the lesser candidates, in this case self-appointed GOP prophet Walter Moore, has been loudly banging the gong to get himself in to this first debate, with predictable results.
Having run campaigns of all sorts, from underdogs with little money, to front runners with all the benefits of The Establishment on their side, I’ve been on all sides of this mini-tempest before. The problem is, while we have the perennial quibbling about who is “included” and who is “not”, we never ask the question – are debates particularly informative to you, the voter?
Put out of your mind the bipartisan news conference/reality TV show we had in 2004 – it doesn’t count. Instead, let’s look at what your typical local campaign debate is going to end up looking like, with or without the angry loners and ill-funded prophets big year elections tend to attract.
The event will be “sponsored” by some “local” (aka out-of-town corporate owned chapter) media outlet, and some respectable group to give the event some credibility. Rules will be set. The questions will be have lots of big words and compound sentences. Everyone will be given a minute or two to respond, and maybe 30 seconds for quick witted responses.
If someone stumbles and says something stupid, it gets in the paper. If someone gives a long and thoughtful answer, they’re zinged as being “too wordy.” If they are expected to drool oatmeal on their power tie and don’t, they’re declared “the winner.” Unless you attend the event, you won’t see 99.5% of the event at all. And off we go.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find these events tedious and useless to me as a citizen when ascertaining who to vote for. I fail to see how a “debate” elevates discourse, when everyone has to talk in 1 minute/30 second soundbites, no different than the witticisms they’re putting into 11 x 17 one fold mail pieces and 30 second commercials. And yet, these are somehow held out to be something worth fighting over.
Imagine for a moment that instead of quippy one liners and the same boring questions put forth by the same people, we instead had our Mayoral candidates have a conversation. A civilized, respectful conversation about what kind of city they’d like to lead in the next four years, free of prepackaged soundbites and the rhetorical debris of “five point programs” and “promises.”
Imagine a conversation where people would stop spending time trying to score little “wins” with rhetorical barbs, and instead had to talk about what they’d do, and about their opponents, not soley in terms about themselves, but instead about why they have something to offer the voting public, and have to justify what they say not with a briefing book full of dry statistics, but honest answers, even if sometimes that answer is “I don’t know.”
And imagine a voting populace that would take an interest in such a conversation, and judge their prospective leaders not by the tie they wear or the quickness of the repartee, but by their integrity and their commitment to a discussion that was about what is and isn’t possible in Election 2005, instead of simply looking for the one that panders to their self interests the most.
Holding your breath? Don’t. It’s bad for your health.
In the meantime, I’ll be waving pennants and selling popcorn at the next debate. Here’s hoping someone scores a zinger!
PS: As we begin campaign season, inevitably we get the standard who’s working for who story. It makes for a good read though, and gives some idea on what we can expect.
Interestingly enough, a San Francisco-based news site, BeyondChron (a riff on that city’s infamous San Francisco Chronicle offers a more pointed look at the selection of several well known San Franciscans for roles in the Villaraigosa and Parks camps.
Although I don’t agree with the author in every assertion he makes, he does bring up some interesting ideas to think about, and whether you’re predisposed to that line of thinking or not, it’s worth reading. I’ll be posting a seperate column with my take on political consulting and the lack of diversity (perceived and/or real) in that profession later on.

© 2003-2006 Greg Dewar | All Rights Reserved | Originally Published at

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