Robert Magee, Staff Writer, RMagee@albanylaw.edu
The Election 2008 Symposium was rounded off by a panel consisting Tracey Brooks, representing the Obama Campaign, and John Faso, representing the McCain Campaign. They weighed in on energy and economic issues on a panel hosted by Alan Chartock.
Both Brooks and Faso bear impressive resumes in New York politics within their respective parties. Ms. Brooks surrogacy for Barack Obama was illustrative of election issues passed as she was once the regional director for Senator Clinton and worked heavily for Clinton during Clinton’s campaign. Faso was the Republican challenger to the ill-fated Eliot Spitzer. Chartock himself is something of a giant in New York politics as president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio.
As a nation The Issues for this election have been presented, debated, vetted, presented again, killed and then resurrected over and over. With any idea, there is always the possibility that something new will be said, but the length of the 2008 Presidential Election and the desperate pitch it has meticulously cultivated since last winter faced Faso and Brooks with an uphill battle if they were planning on doing so tonight.
Thus, we couldn’t fault anyone when it became immediately clear that tonight’s debate wouldn’t bring anything particularly new to the table and we weren’t particularly disappointed to run over “we don’t know Obama, maybe he’s a socialist” line and then the “McCain is Bush” and then “the terrorists want to kill you” and then the “restore America’s standing” lines one last time before text Tuesday.
That’s not to say that tonight’s debate wasn’t interesting or that the opportunity to divorce the candidates’ platforms from the candidates themselves. Candidate debates as we know them now, as we learned in elementary school, were born of a union between Kennedy and Nixon in the Fall of 1960.1 As the fable goes, Nixon lost the presidency because he didn’t wear make-up and wore a gray suit. Perhaps with good reason, the modern debate wasn’t a child America received with open arms. Neither Nixon nor Johnson saw need or wisdom to debate their challengers2 and it wasn’t until 1976, when the League of Women Voters offered a forum to Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford that America saw another presidential debate.3 160 million Americans are said to have watched at least a part of the 1976 debate and again this new sort of debate swallowed another candidacy. When Gerald Ford made the mistake of saying that the U.S.S.R. didn’t dominate countries in Eastern Europe he is said to have foreclosed the possibility that he would retain the White House.4 Though Americans have come to expect these debates, there is little evidence that they are particularly satiated by them.5 The Nixon/Kennedy debate has failed to provide a substantive forum for political discussion and for candidates it has only been an opportunity to fail. As a result, the parties sought to reign them in (voters not being in much of a position to) and in 1988 the League of Women Voters were out and the Commission on Presidential Debates was in.6
But the American presidential debate wasn’t born in 1960, but 1858, between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln who would, day in, day out, go head to head for three hours before raucous voters.7 This sort of model bears a number of fatal flaws. Overly contentious participants could prevent anything useful from being said at all. In extreme instances, the hysteria these debates are known to have caused might compel some to violence. However, there was an element of honesty in these debates that few would say hasn’t been lost in the modern format.
Though both Brooks and Faso were faithful surrogates in both their passion, articulation and demeanor, the lack of consequences inherent in this kind of debate allowed it to break from the national model for a moment or two. At one point Brooks was made to answer for the Obama campaign’s attempts to distant itself from Muslim voters. At another, when Brooks was deriding Obama’s energy policy he asked the question “I don’t know how many of you came to tonight’s event in electric cars” at which point three proud Prius’ drivers’ hands shot immediately up.8 But the debate quickly returned to the well-tread path and everyone, the surrogates, the moderator, the audience, remained faithful to the Nixon/Kennedy model.
In the final analysis both Brooks and Faso were passionate about what they were saying and they each articulated their message well, which the national campaigns have had trouble doing over the din of those covering them. There is a great deal to be passionate about in this election and the aforementioned divorce also worked as a colander, keeping out a lot of the personal attacks and baseless rumors which have clung like barnacles to the legitimate ones. In this way it was more civil and more time was spent thinking about The Issues. And it was good to talk about the Issues. For one last time.
1Tim Cramm, The Designated Public Forum: Remedying the Forbes Mistake, 67 Alb. L. Rev. 89, 97-99 (2003).
2 Id. at 99.
3 Id. at 102.
5 See Susan E. Spotts, The Presidential Debates Act of 1992, 29 Harv. J. on Legis. 561, 563 (1992) (“Bernard Shaw, of CNN, stated, ′88 was a charade, these were not debates,’ and Walter Cronkite, of CBS, described the debates as ‘phony, part of an unconscionable fraud.’); Jamin B. Raskin, The Debate Gerrymander, 77 Tex L Rev. 1943, 1997 (1999) (discussing the alienation of third party candidates from political debates).
6Spotts, supra note 5, at 563-65.
7Cramm, supra note 1, at 93-94.
8 The hands of this cyclist remained at his keyboard.