Tonawanda News

September 28, 2012

Debate? You can't handle debate

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — By this time next week it may all be over. Whatever it is, it may be over. 

The NFL referees’ lockout, the Major League Baseball pennant races, the fate of several network television shows, the hockey lockout, the choices for elections. This time next week we’ll see the fallout from the first so-called debate. (Ask anyone who did debate in high school or college. Resolution. Affirmative, negative. Cross-examination, rebuttal. That’s debate, the way the NFL differs from kids playing football in the street. These television presentations involving political candidates are more like press conferences or interviews: shout the question, get a response of sorts.)

I tend not to get misty-eyed when I think of my high school days, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, except for a few hot teachers and my ability to dismantle opponents in debate (my various nemeses learned quickly I could convince anyone I’m right about anything. Their solution: stop listening to me), but I look forward to Mr. President and Mr. Governor sorta squaring off to bat things around. Regrettably neither candidate goes into these things with the attitude of finishing the other off. The rules are intentionally skewed so it doesn’t happen.

Mr. Obama, what do you think? Mr. Romney, same question. Expect the vague “make this country great again” answers.

Interrogators lob in softball questions, with little time for follow-up exposition. What you’ll learn, if anything, is which candidate handles televised pressure the best (and remember, one’s been commander-in-chief for four years). Little else.

Candidates do not even enter a debate unless they and their handlers can control it. There will be no hard-left or hard-right questioners on the panel of experts, for example. You think Mike Wallace was an inquisitor? Imagine an Obama-Romney debate with Rachel Maddow and William Kristol as panelists, then get set to watch candidates at their stumbling, panicking worst. 

There is a surfeit of information these days about presidential candidates, offering the daily diary of who went where. Vice presidential candidate Ryan visited a steel mill Tuesday in Cincinnati. Didn’t do anything extraordinary — rode the campaign bus into the plant, made the usual speech, rolled out — but it was news, because it was easy to cover.

Give me something meaty, something like an incisive question from a news analyst trained in the art of reasoning, followed by a sharply reasoned answer or a stammering, beads-of-sweat response from a candidate.

Doesn’t happen often enough, by design.

You could also give me a set of panelists who don’t have initials like NBC or CNN on their paychecks. Find an articulate scientist to inquire about global warming policy. Get a genuine economist to ask about the economy, or the best CPA in Washington to dig into candidates’ tax returns and come back with questions. 

Then arrange for someone from ESPN to score the fight, as they say in boxing, counting every “uh,” every deer-in-the-headlights look, every evasive attempt to direct hard questions into answers that lead to “what’s right about America!” 

Now that would be a debate somehow worthy of the name.

It could be argued (debaters argue, see) that voters do not want to see one candidate demolish the other, or see one candidate left twitching in a puddle of mistakes and inadequate responses.

Running for president is all about trust, about making the sale, closing the deal, before anyone even mentions Israel or the deficit or the cost of gasoline. 

I would jump at the chance to watch and hear experts ask quality questions and demand quality answers, which won’t happen next week. Both presidential candidates logically tend to favor supportive interviewers, which is probably why the president is on the Leno and Letterman shows as often as he is. My president, or next president, will have to deal with Chinese, Russian, Iranian, Israeli and other hostile debaters, as well as citizens who want to know why their country is accelerating into something they no longer recognize. The candidates now are like football teams who have played too many easy opponents.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Tonawanda News. Contact him at