Last Thursday’s democratic debate on MSNBC was something of a draw. It was not harmful, nor was it helpful; it was not unproductive per se, but neither was it truly constructive. And while I laughed or nodded at various points throughout the 90-minute Q& A, it was always in a manner that was equally predictable and routine as the questions and answers themselves. I was playing the role of the Viewer while they played their roles as Moderators and Candidates – parts we all seem to know by heart.
The truth is I felt throughout that I was not watching a debate; I was watching a pageant. This was not a dynamic contest of argumentation or even a discussion of opposing viewpoints among rivals; it was an elaborate, public presentation of tiresome tradition and stagecraft. In a discussion, there is momentum and emotion, with the constant chance of spontaneity. In a pageant, there is merely prompt and pomp, with the assurance of banality.
Last Thursday, we were given a pageant, my friends.
Of course, you turn to a debate in the first place seeking definition – of the candidates, of the issues, of the race itself. That is the primary purpose of a debate. Instead, the cramped and stilted format of the televised debate, with its timed responses and controlled settings, only leaves you with more questions than answers and ultimately more reliant on rumor than reality. The format negatively impacts the candidates as well, causing them to seem stilted and their positions to seem cramped. It is simply outside the scope of the televised debate format to be of any real value when it comes to substantially defining anything at all.
And that is my only takeaway from last week’s debate: this issue of scope.
Barack Obama is running a campaign of far-reaching ambition and enormous potential.
The breadth of his intentions and motivations are so vast, so varied, and so complex that they each simply demand a tremendous extent of attention: changing the ways of Washington; renewing a sense of common investment among Americans; effectively resolving the American-made disaster in Iraq; designing universal health care; crafting apt and coherent foreign policies; reclaiming the reputation of America around the globe; leading the world by example in issues of freedom, educational opportunity, diplomacy, and environmental sustainability. These are intricate issues that cannot be justly discussed or even paraphrased in 60-second response times.
Obama uniquely sees the interconnectedness of these issues. He sees the potential to achieve positive outcomes in confronting them. He sees new ways to approach these issues and he speaks about them with both the head and heart to cause others to see these new approaches as well. His ability to see America as it is while also setting his sights on America as it could be makes him a candidate unlike any other in the race. Furthermore, his natural ability to inspire others to do likewise makes him a leader unlike any in a generation.
This is what makes his ambition far-reaching, his potential enormous.
Therefore, Obama’s greatest threat in this race could very well be one of scope: the incommensurate scopes of his candidacy and the contest itself. The debate last Thursday painfully demonstrated this when he devoted significant portions of his limited response time to providing context and setting up his ultimate position. Taking time to think about his words implied hesitation, some said, and bolstered the notion that he is too inexperienced for the presidency. He responded throughout the debate as though he was giving a speech at one of his sold-out rallies, where he has the space for unhampered thought and discussion. The fact is that politics has coevolved with television to provide sound bites and memorable quotes, rather than contextual analysis or novel ideas. There simply is not time to answer questions about foreign policy and climate change with scrutiny. A few broad strokes about your position ought to suffice. In fact, you know what, why don’t you just raise your hand if I mention an issue you care about. That will leave more time for the swimsuit competition anyway.
The televised debate last Thursdays simply proved to be too small for the essential bigness of Obama’s candidacy. You see, that bigness is what defines him. He is playing a new game, one we have never seen before in American politics. Unfortunately, he has to do so while playing by old rules. Obama has said, “We’ve seen too many elections where our problems are talked to death. Where ten point plans are crushed under the weight of the same old politics once the election is over… If we do not change our politics, if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works, then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.” Such emphasis on change cannot be fully expressed in the traditional arena of televised debate. They simply seek different outcomes.
A better pairing is found in the scopes of Obama’s candidacy and what he calls ‘The American Moment.”
“We are not a country that ships prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far off countries,” Obama says. “We are not a country that runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they are there or what they are charged with. We are not a country which preaches compassion and justice to others while we allow bodies to float down the streets of a major American city. That is not who we are… Now it’s our moment to lead – our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East. That this was the time when we confronted climate change and secured the weapons that could destroy the human race. This was the time when we brought opportunity to those forgotten corners of the world. And this was the time when we renewed the America that has led generations of weary travelers from all over the world to find opportunity, and liberty, and hope on our doorstep… The American moment has not passed. The American moment is here. And like generations before us, we will seize that moment, and begin the world anew.”
It may not be a sound bite. It may take longer to think about these words than to raise one’s hand. But the fact is that this is where you find the candidate defining himself. This clarifies the candidate, the issues, and the race more than a single moment of Thursday’s debate did. We can only hope that Obama finds a way to ensure that future debates do not hamper his ability to deliver this message to the American people.