We are less than three weeks away from Election Day. In the longest presidential campaign in American history, 15 primary candidates became two presidential hopefuls: Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain. At this point in time, a typical campaign analyst would presume both platforms would have been well articulated, challenged and disseminated in the presidential debates. But this is not a typical campaign, and that does not seem to be the case. In the midst of bemused moderators and citizens it is important to ask: What have we learned from Obama and McCain in the debates?
The first presidential debate, held in September, did a fair job addressing the financial crisis and some issues in international politics. Under the umbrella of foreign policy and national security, the candidates focused primarily on the global financial system, energy efficiency and the war in Iraq. The publics response was reasonably positive (as we so cleverly saw on the Audience Reaction Meter), but overall the candidates' responses were measured and politically pointed. The second debate however, was painstakingly mundane. Both candidates resorted to rhetoric, statistics and political banter to halfheartedly address the concerns of the American people. Once again, focusing almost entirely on the economy, the debate dissolved into a sheet of statistics as the questions yielded themselves to easy answers and easy escapes.
Throughout both debates, I found that the questions asked by the moderators and by the audience left something to be desired. Unremitting inquiries concerning the economy and the environment served to reduce the upcoming election to two categories financial security and energy dependency. I will not dispute the urgency of these issues. I will however, point out that not much has been said to get a clear picture of the issues from the debates. How many different ways can one ask, How is the bailout going to help me? Who is responsible for this economic meltdown? The questions in last weeks debate were charged with frustration, and for good reason Americans are in a tough position right now. But the answers we received did very little to quell such gripes. Instead, they promulgated specific agendas with canned answers.
Moreover, not only have the questions been overly limited to the current financial crisis, but also the candidates have continuously sidestepped the focus of the moderators inquiries. Instead, they peddle the repetitive sound bytes of their specific agenda, no matter how off-track they may be. More often than not, Obama and McCain have acknowledged the moderators question and then proceeded to answer something entirely different. Rather than providing direct answers to the posed inquiries, both Obama and McCain have used the debates as a forum to address the American public on issues at their discretion. Maybe the questions themselves have not been bad, but the answers have instead deviated from their proposed trajectory.
Yet beyond grievances behind which questions were asked, it is important to consider which questions were not asked. It is evident that voters are panicked about our financial system; however, in directing all animosity towards Wall Street the American public has mistakenly put all other policy matters on the back burner. Once this economic cycle comes out of its trough, we will again be faced with social issues at the crux of American politics. Our near-sightedness has allowed us to forgo questions like, how has Obama addressed Guantanamo Bay and human rights? What has McCain said recently on immigration? With Justice John Paul Stevens approaching retirement, whom will each candidate appoint to the Supreme Court and how will the appointment affect Roe v. Wade?
Understanding the weavings of the economy in this election is inerently different from voting wholly on the economic crisis. A few years down the line, this financial calamity will have been placated and order resumed. It is imperative to reconsider where these candidates stand on issues other than the economy and in which direction they would like to take America once our institutions have been restored.
It is possible this is nothing new. Perhaps this is politics as usual. But if that is the case, what is the point of holding each debate? The American public is anxiously looking not at the candidates solutions to the current crises, but also what they genuinely stand for.
In tonights debate moderated by Bob Schieffer, the candidates will sit around the same table and discuss issues in domestic policy. It is inevitable that once again the economy will dominate the conversation, but I sincerely hope Schieffer will steer debate towards other social issues that weigh heavily on our lives so we may learn more about the Democratic and Republican platforms. The time has come to be a little more specific, Schieffer told The Associated Press on Sunday. I hope he lives up to his word.
It has been argued that the debates can ultimately determine the votes. They helped John F. Kennedy to defeat Richard Nixon in 1960 and Ronald Reagan to oust Jimmy Carter in 1980. But I am not confident that in 2008 that will be the case. The 2008 election has certainly ushered in a new era of politics. Do our expectations of the debates need to be adjusted to this reality? I would rather see the candidates rise to the occasion and demonstrate a strong understanding of these broad and multidimensional issues. Instead of falling prey to political stereotypes, through these debates I would like to see a candidate rise up and truly be presidential.