Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Democratic Party Debate

A brief few minutes ago, I watched the CNN / YouTube Democratic Party debate in its entirety. The event proved to be entertaining enough to sustain an audience in an environment that is typically a tough sell for political programs: the fraternity house.

While watching the debate, I was joined by two friends who I consider very strongly politically active. One I would describe as having “quite” liberal ideology (or “progressive” as Senator Clinton decided during the debate it should now be termed) the other; moderately liberal ideology, although he is quite the deceptive gentleman and he could be much more strongly to the left then I suspect but is disguising such a viewpoint behind a charismatic and witty mask. However, these are the type of individuals whom I expected to find interest in the debate. More pleasing a fact was that those that passed by the open door to my room also joined and participated in watching the debate.

All concerned seemed to agree on this assessment of the debate: it was overly “gimmicky.” Before tending to this blog, I caught a bit of the post-debate commentary on CNN hosted by Wolf Blitzer. Both he and his studio guests were applauding the format of the debate in self-congratulatory manner. The observers from room 105 of the U.S.F. Sigma Phi Epsilon House were less impressed.

My biggest complaint wasn’t that the candidates so easily dodged a majority of the questions. This is a phenomenon that occurs during all of these made-for-television debates. In fact, “debate” seems to be a faux pas; most of the individuals on the stage tonight referenced the posed questions just long enough to transition into whatever topic they had decided in premeditated style to address, regardless of relation to the question at hand. My complaint lies in this: “debate” seems to conjure thoughts of argument and competitive discourse. This rarely occurred tonight. In my opinion, this was much more a fault of the format of the debate then the intentions of the candidates themselves. In a rush to present as many user-submitted videos as possible, the “debaters” were given limited time to answer and, more often then not, only one opposing candidate was given an opportunity to retort. Without exchanges between candidates, tonight’s event hardly entered conversation-territory, let alone being worthy of the title of debate.

All that being said, some of the Democratic Party representatives did a good job of showcasing their oratorical talents. Barack Obama, for example, was the most successful in his performance. Others failed in their limited chance to shine. Senator Mike Gravel, for example, elicited laughs tonight from the spectators in my room. This wasn’t because of his wit but because of his apparent lack of coherence.

I took notes on the debate as points were presented as best I could, given the situation in my room at the time. I am using those notes, memory, and this quickly published TRANSCRIPT to report what occurred and my subsequent reactions. I hope you find this an informative endeavor.

Assessing the Debate

The first question challenged the candidates to explain how they would be different from current administration officials should they become elected President. Barack Obama used this as an opportunity to present what would be one of his two recurring themes of the night (the other theme dealing with education reform):

Now, part of that is bringing people together, as Chris said. But part of it is also overcoming special interests and lobbyists who are writing legislation that's critical to the American people.

Throughout the night, Senator Obama pressed on his working talking-point of defeating the special interest groups that are, in his assessment, corrupting government. This seems like a noble cause. Furthermore, I think that officials from either party would argue that the special interest lobbyists in Washington have far too much influence. The only question that I ask is this: What do you, as a candidate, suggest we do about it?

While lobbyists are given far too much authority with their big-money backing, I feel it is still fair to suggest that they represent some segment of the American population. If lobbyists aren’t suggesting ideology to government, then who is? As a whole, this issue seems far too simple. Government officials should rely solely on the needs and desires of their constituents. Examine more closely, however, and the situation becomes much more baffling. I genuinely would like to hear a solution that would eliminate special interests while still providing some format for the people to be heard. Single voices have trouble being discerned in a public body as large as America’s. Inevitably, they have to form groups with like-minded individuals. How do we prevent these groups from then being corrupted by their need to generate monetary resources to conduct certain logistical efforts? While it is easy to suggest that special interests need to be purged, I predict that it will be a much more difficult act to put into practice. This takes fundamental change in the operation of the democratic system as we know it.

An interesting question occurred a bit later in the debate. A video asked if any of the candidates are prepared to disburse reparations to African-Americans. The reparations are due, in the view of the questioner, because of the debt born from slavery. Only Representative Kucinich seemed ready to make such repayment:

The Bible says we shall be and must be repairers of the breach. And a breach has occurred.”

While that was an interesting answer, I want to again address the direction Senator Obama took in his answer. He used this question to emphasize his second focus of the night: the need for education reform:

I did a town hall meeting in Florence, South Carolina, in an area called the corridor of shame. They've got buildings that students are trying to learn in that were built right after the Civil War. And we've got teachers who are not trained to teach the subjects they're teaching and high dropout rates.

We've got to understand that there are corridors of shame all across the country. And if we make the investments and understand that those are our children, that's the kind of reparations that are really going to make a difference in America right now.”

While I may disagree with the core values of Senator Obama’s campaign, I must also cede to his rhetorical ability. Throughout the night, he found methods of turning nearly every issue into a topic of dilemma that could be quelled through either the elimination of special interests in Washington or the reform of public education throughout America. For the record, on the question at hand, Senator Obama was against direct reparations.

A later question promoted the sharpest answers of the night. A query was presented directly to Senators Clinton and Obama. The video referenced claims that Clinton didn’t represent female ideals strongly enough and that Obama wasn’t “Black enough” to satisfy the gender and race that they represented respectively. The question asked of their response to such claims. This video was commented on by several members of the panel and in intriguing fashion no less. Senator John Edwards used this opportunity to score big points:

“…anybody who's considering not voting for Senator Obama because he's black or for Senator Clinton because she's a woman, I don't want their vote. I don't want them voting for me.”

This answer elicited applause from the South Carolina crowd. Moments before Senator Obama had the wittiest response of the night in reference to his “Blackness:”

You know, when I'm catching a cab in Manhattan -- in the past, I think I've given my credentials.”

At this point, I have found myself wanting to submit to Senator’s Obama’s White House bid. He seems engaging; certainly charismatic, charming and intelligent. He is young and handsome. If he would only alter his stances on socialized health care, gun control, abortion, tax growth and a wealth of other issues, I may be thoroughly sympathetic to his cause. Alas, he is a junior Senator; he has plenty of time in his political career to come to grips with the downfalls of his platform.

Senator Clinton didn’t waste this opportunity either. She feels that the concerns of government should outweigh any based on gender or race:

And I trust the American people to make a decision that is not about me or my gender, or about Barack or his race or about Bill and his ethnicity, but about what is best for you and your family.”

However, at other points, she seemed all too eager to use her gender to promote her status as a champion of feminist causes. On the issue recently raised by Senator Edwards’s wife that he, not Senator Clinton, was a better advocate for issues specifically directed towards women, Clinton ended with this little barb:

But I think it is terrific. We're up here arguing about who's going to be better for women, because isn't that a nice change for everybody to hear.”

Moving on, we eventually came to what was probably the night’s single most problematic question for the candidates. Filmed in a refugee camp in Africa, the video asked the political contenders what they would do to end the oppression currently occurring in Darfur, Sudan. Senator Biden seemed to answer with the most support for using American troops to pacify the situation:

Twenty-five hundred American troops -- if we do not get the 21,000 U.N. troops in there -- can stop the genocide now. I have called for a no-fly zone. Everybody agreed, but you need troops on the ground.

The other candidates were less adamant in their convictions. Senator Clinton seemed to find trouble directly answering the question. She agreed with Senator Biden that action was warranted and that American personnel in that action was needed. However, when pressed by host Anderson Cooper, she wouldn’t submit to suggesting the direct use of American troops:

American ground troops I don't think belong in Darfur at this time. I think we need to focus on the United Nations peacekeeping troops and the African Union troops.”

Failing to muster an adequate response that was as passionate as Biden’s without alienating an anti-war base, Senator Clinton predictably took her response to an alternate discussion… by insulting the current situations in Afghanistan and Iraq:

We've got to figure out what we're doing in Iraq, where our troops are stretched thin, and Afghanistan, where we're losing the fight to Al Qaida and bin Laden.”

The most contentious portions of the debate developed when the candidates were pressed on the issue of troop withdrawal in Iraq. When this subject came up, Senator Biden referenced past legislation that he has an introduced that requires the implementation of a decentralized government in Iraq with separate Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states. Governor Bill Richardson repeatedly invoked his suggestion that all troops should be withdrawn in the next six months. Senator Biden responded harshly:

Number one, there is not a single military man in this audience who will tell this senator he can get those troops out in six months if the order goes today.”

Other somewhat stimulating topics were introduced but, in general, one should be able to ascertain where any of the mentioned candidates stand at this point. So with that in mind, I am going to bring this is to a close. However, I am going to attempt to do so more eloquently then did the debate. The final question asked each candidate to name one thing they liked and one thing they disliked about the opponents directly to their left and right. This was a predictably awkward and fruitless exercise. It did, however, promote one of the genuinely humorous tongue-in-cheek lines of the night: Senator Biden on his thoughts concerning Representative Kucinich (and this is paraphrased because the end of the debate is not yet available in transcript form):

There’s not a damn thing I like about him.”

1 comment:

John said...

This was the first debate of either party's candidates that I did not watch. However, I've read enough and heard enough of the sound clips that I've gained a feel for what went on.

I thought the format was gimmicky, and some of the questions and the manner the YouTubers presented them were beneath the dignity of the office to which the candidates aspire. I guess it's the dumbing down of American politics - as if it could get any more so.

I understand this format is going to be repeated for the GOP candidates. It will be interesting to see how the YouTubers will present their questions, and what kind of questions the CNN team selects to present to the GOP candidates.

Last night's Hugh Hewitt show ran through most of the questions posed to the demo candidates, assigning them a label of liberal, conservative and just plain stupid. The final score was about 26-4-6.

As to Obama's recurring allusion to his inability to get a cab in Manhattan, presumably because he's black, Hugh pointed out that he often can't get a cab in Manhattan. Hugh's about as white as one can get. So, I doubt Obama's inability to get a cab has much to do with the color of his skin.