IN CALIFORNIA, THE TEDIOUS RITUALS OF POLITICAL DEBATE
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, May 15, 2006 -- It's another election year, and with it comes that strange amalgam of politics and miscommunication known as the candidate debate. This is a carefully designed ritual with its own unwritten rules and logic. The ritualistic nature is not always apparent to the viewer, even though it is as carefully circumscribed as a south-Pacific cargo cult.
As Exhibit No. 1, we offer the May 10 meeting of the Democratic Party candidates Phil Angelides and Steve Westly in the race for the governorship of California.
The two will be facing off in the June 6 primary for the honor of facing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the November general election. The terminally masochistic may refer to www.cbs5.com to watch the whole show. But for the rest of the world, just trail along as we explain the unwritten rules of the game.
The debate is a multi-player contest in which each has a different motive. Unfortunately, the motives generally do not include bringing truth and enlightenment to the voters. We have the candidates, who are there for two reasons: First, they are present because if they weren't, they would be called cowardly by the opposition; secondly, they hope at least to break even. The idea is to get your face in front of the ignorant and undecided, in the hopes that you will come across as warm and lovable.
There is a moderator. His worst fear is that some audience member, given the chance, will ask one of those embarrassing, rambling excursions that can only be halted by the moderator becoming rude. "Do you have a question?" "Will you please ask a question?" "Could you come to your point?"
There is also a panel of journalists who have, to put it politely, mixed motives: They want to appear professional, but they also delight in tossing out the "gotcha" question, this being defined as the sort of question that no sane politician would ever respond to with a straight answer. Try, "Shall we deport illegal aliens right now? Shall we refuse them public benefits? Shall we reduce the severity of the ‘three strikes' criminal statute?"
In the May 10 debate, the latter two questions were actually put in play, apparently just to see the candidates squirm.
The rest of the time, the panelists ask mundane questions about issues that are supposed to be the hot topics of the day. Roughly paraphrased, they went like this:
"What will you as governor do to lower gasoline prices?
"Will you sign into law a bill to legalize same-sex marriages?
"What will you do about the high cost of political campaigns? How are you different from your opponent?"
Then there are the members of the studio audience. People watching the show on tv perhaps don't realize it, but the studio audience is apportioned among the opposing sides according to a carefully negotiated formula; neither side can risk having the opposition pack the audience with its supporters, so each side gets its own bloc of seats. They are told not to boo or hiss.
Watching these debates, it becomes clear that there is an underlying, unspoken rule that candidates follow religiously: Pick one message and beat it to death. Anytime you get a chance to mold an answer to that theme, do so, no matter how far afield it gets from the topic you were supposed to discuss. In order to make this clear, let's take a moment and consider a 30-second spot called "Heavy Lifting" that the Angelides campaign produced.
Here is the visual and spoken content in its entirety:
(Visual of big, muscular guy lifting a barbell, followed by a scrawny little kid trying to lift the same weight, but without success). A deep male voice: "Who's doing the heavy lifting under Arnold Schwarzenegger? Billions of dollars in debt for our children, unsafe staffing in hospitals, deep cuts in education." (Phil Angelides enters the frame)
"I'm Phil Angelides and Arnold Schwarzenegger is putting the burden on the wrong people. I'm the only Democrat for governor who's fighting to fully fund our schools and balance the budget by closing corporate tax loopholes and asking multimillionaires to pay their fair share again. Because this is ridiculous." (Deep voiced male again) "Phil Angelides for governor."
That's the Angelides message given in a 30 second commercial, a spot in which Angelides only recites two sentences. What became clear in the debate was that this is the Angelides message in full. The debate went on for many multiples of that 30 seconds, but I challenge any viewer to remember much of anything Angelides said except the part about fully funding education and taxing the millionaires.
Westly was perhaps just a little more broad in his answers, but they can be paraphrased simply: I'm a common sense guy with experience in business who will work with everybody on a bipartisan basis to fix the state. I don't have a plan to raise taxes the way Phil does. Oh yes, I taught in a classroom, but Phil Angelides is a career politician.
Here is an example of how this process works. When asked whether he would sign a bill to legalize same sex marriages, Angelides said that he would. Faced with time remaining on the clock, he added a rambling dissertation on teaching his daughters to do the right thing (as he himself does), and went further off track by saying that he is the only Democratic candidate with a plan to fully fund schools. What same sex marriage and school funding have in common was left to the viewer to unscramble.
And later, in response to a different question, Angelides pointed out that he is the only Democratic candidate with a plan to fully fund schools. And again. And again and again.
In sports and journalism, it is called "going to the well." Just do what you think is working, and endlessly repeat it.
Faced with the same sort of challenge, Westly had his own well to go to. For him, it was "common sense" and nonpartisan cooperation. Westly has an uncanny resemblance to a certain late-night comedian who does a George Bush imitation on Saturday Night Live. Once you have noticed this, watching and listening to him talk about common sense solutions becomes a surreal experience.
Another unwritten rule is to use your response time to attack your opponent in an offhand way, as if it were perfectly obvious to everyone that Westly is just a Schwarzenegger clone or that Angelides is just a career politician. Neither of these is true (Angelides was a well-known property developer before getting elected to statewide office, and Westly has been a liberal Democrat for decades), but they are intended to put the opponent off balance.
The result is a strange dance where each candidate, upon being asked a question by the panel, first responds to his opponent's attack, then responds to the question and then launches his own attack. It's actually impressive to watch candidates do all of the above in the allotted 90 seconds.
Here is another ritualistic technique: When you are peeved at your opponent and want to put him in his place, you call him by his first name. It is a classical technique intended to intimidate and dehumanize. It's really not all that intimidating to the opponent - if he can't take being called by his first name, he doesn't belong in politics - but it signals to the audience a tone of righteous anger. It's like holding up a sign saying, "When I call him Steve, listen carefully, because I'm angry about what he said about me."
It may seem a little strange, but when you listen to the debate, these two techniques - going to the well, and calling your opponent Steve - summarize most of what you are hearing.
There are a few other techniques that you will notice if you listen carefully. Put into practice, they fill time without actually adding any substance. Here they are:
Say how proud you are: "I'm proud that I took this position four years ago, long before my opponent."
Constantly refer to standing up, preferably in the past tense: I stood up to the Wall Street interests. I stood up to Arnold Schwarzenegger when my opponent was supporting him.
Talk about doing the right thing.
"I'm the son of immigrants."
Use the word "fight" and the past tense, "fought." You can put two of these cliches together like this: "I stood up and fought for the ordinary Californian."
It gets worse when either candidate uses the word "tough." "I stood tough against the governor when he tried to underfund the schools." With all this standing tall and fighting and being tough, you would think it was professional wrestling. As a rule, any politician who uses the word "tough" sounds like a fool.
There are a few more unwritten rules of the genre. Not the least of these is to use a euphemism for a tax increase. "Close corporate loopholes" means to find a way to collect more taxes from corporations. The same holds true when a tax increase is referred to as a "fair share." It may be true that raising taxes on the wealthy is the fair thing to do, but the Angelides line about "asking multimillionaires to pay their fair share" refers to the process of raising taxes. Taxes are, by definition, mandatory and backed by the police power of the state; this is anything but "asking."
Finally, there is one curious aspect to many of the questions and candidate's answers that is worthy of comment. Many questions involve problems for which the governor has little if any power. In what way could the governor cause home prices to be lower? It's hard to imagine what he could do. In what way could the governor of California push gasoline prices lower? In what way can the governor have any immediate effect in lowering high school dropout rates? A realistic answer to each of these has to be, "not much."
What is even more curious is that candidates almost never point out that the governor lacks power to do something. Instead, they talk around the issue, offering up policy prescriptions that might conceivably have long term affects. Apparently, candidates and their advisors feel that it is dangerous to admit weakness about anything, even when it involves the Constitution.
This hubris reaches its highest when candidates talk about what they will do as governor. "I will balance the budget." "I will fully fund education."
No, they won't. The state legislature will, with the signature of the governor - or the state legislature won't. It's called separation of powers, and candidates continually talk as though it doesn't exist.
When all these techniques are put together in the form of the candidates' debate, they leave this viewer irritated. There is something profoundly annoying about listening to what is supposed to be an intelligent answer to a question, only to have the candidate go off topic for the nth time to browbeat his opponent over education funding.
What the candidates fail to realize is that when they browbeat their opponents, they are also brow-beating the audience. Less redundancy and a little more careful thought would be far preferable.