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THE HOTLINE

WHITE HOUSE 2004 — THE PRIMARY
BACKSEAT DRIVING: The Debate Plague


By Mike Murphy

For months the Democratic primary has been infested by a plague of cable TV debates and they've been a waste of time for nearly everybody, especially the candidates.

Voters wait for the real debates on real local TV during the last weeks before the primaries. Those debates move numbers and should be treated with great preparation and respect. But this pre-season stuff is silly. Just four years ago I remember only a handful of debates between the start of the campaign and the South Carolina primary. This year, I've lost count. The poor candidates trudge from one viewer-less debate to the next like the Osmond Brothers after Donny left working auto-shows. Feeding this sideshow monster hurts their campaigns. Each staff is forced to pour endless time and money into debate preparation, gaming out what to do if Kerry attacks Gephardt for agreeing with Lieberman to attack Dean. All of this time and money and energy could instead be invested into something that might actually get the poor candidate nominated, like winning the New Hampshire primary. Instead it has been all debates all the time.

My guess is the candidates are starting to figure this out and have begun asking who the genius on their staff was who agreed to all this.

Here is the problem; each campaign is afraid to say no. These debates are a media racket and the campaigns are afraid to buck the law. So on they march on to the Weather Channel Thunderclap 2003 Showdown Debate in Tuscaloosa.

The campaign staffs are afraid to say no because almost every Presidential primary campaign is a toiling slave to conventional wisdom. Which is why most of them lose. The conventional wisdom regarding debates gravely dictates that no candidate could ever be so foolish as to avoid a debate, since doing so would instantly destroy their otherwise unstoppable campaign since the no-show candidate would — gasp — "Look Scared." Balderdash.

First, these are not real debates. They are joint appearances. (No wonder nobody watches them.) Second, this conventional wisdom often comes from the same reporters and producers who have a big stake in promoting the Endless Debate Scam. (The First Corollary of the You Must Debate rule: OUR debate is the ONE you HAVE to do.) Both TV and print are in on it. The network political units strive to promote their on air talent and to beat their rivals across the street in the debate sweepstakes. The print wretches feed off the fat geyser of easy stories that surround the modern "debate": build up and anticipation stories, conflict stories, what just happened stories, post-debate insightful analysis stories. But even the media ultimately gets rooked since NOTHING HAPPENS at these debates. I covered the first ABC/Stephanopoulos debate for this column because it was the first one and because it was on real local TV in some early states and because I like the BBQ in South Carolina. Not a thing has changed since.

Each candidate rolls out a few moldy lines we've heard before on the stump. Staffs swarm out from their worry holes behind the curtain and claim awesome victory to disbelieving reporters. Everybody files and goes to a bar. Only third-rate Candidates with nothing else to do truly enjoy this; for them debates are a delicious larceny whereby they can show up and pretend they are really in the race when in fact they have no business being there at all.

So, what if some foolhardy and poorly advised candidate were to bust up the Phony Debate Racket, by blowing off the silly second-tier debates and agreeing to only show up for one big debate with a big audience and a give and take format? I know somebody tried it recently and sure enough he got loudly hammered by a howling media chorus as a mistake prone idiot who had stupidly blown his campaign by "looking sacred" and not playing their game. Then he got elected Governor of California.

Erratum From Last Week
Last week I called Dennis Kucinich a "fool" and among other things quoted him at the ridiculous CNN Rock the Kiddies debate as calling for an insane 50% cut in the Pentagon budget. Well, the sprightly Kucinich campaign quickly emailed me to put a sock in it and claimed the good Congressman only wants to chop the Pentagon budget by 15% to pay for his universal pre-Kindergarten extravaganza. "Nonsense!" I e-snorted back and darkly vowed to check the CNN tape to prove I was right. I did, and I was wrong. It was 15%. My apologies to Rep. Kucinich.

Hotline Column, Backseat Driving, November, 24, 2003.


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