Debates have too few voices, too many topics

Steven Thomma
Democratic Presidential hopeful Senators Hillary Clinton of New York (left) and Barack Obama of Illinois chat during a brief break for a change in format during the Democratic Debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, June 3 2007. (Pool photo by CJ Gunther/EPA/MCT)
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

WASHINGTON - Does Barack Obama have twice as much to say as Joe Biden? Are his views really twice as important?

That's the impression left by Sunday night's Democratic presidential debate on CNN, in which the moderators gave Obama 16 minutes of airtime, and Biden less than eight minutes. Obama's in his third year in the Senate, where Biden's served 35 years and chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.

It was to be the same Monday evening in Washington at a forum on faith among the Democrats sponsored by Sojourners, a liberal Christian group. The only candidates scheduled to appear were Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards. Doesn't Chris Dodd believe in God? How about Bill Richardson?

This stilted, poll-driven format - with national poll leaders Obama, Clinton and Edwards getting the most time on CNN and the ONLY time at the Sojourners forum - is just one problem with the early debates.

Another is the drive to cover all topics in each debate, rather than exploring one at length and probing all the candidates and points of view.

Is it necessary to cut back talk about the economy or foreign policy to squeeze in questions about mothers in prison, as happened at another debate a few weeks ago? Is the question of gays in the military as urgent as the question of the military in Iraq?

There is an alternative.

On Wednesday, the Center on Politics and Foreign Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies is hosting a 90-minute Democratic debate solely on Iraq.

Serious people holding a debate on the most pressing issue of our time.

Most of the Democratic candidates plan to stay away.

Biden, who first proposed the idea during a debate weeks ago, will be there. So will Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. But Robert Guttman, the center's director, has been unable to get commitments from the others.

"Senator Clinton is doing a fundraiser Wednesday. It's right down the street. We even changed the time so she could show up," Guttman said.

No luck. The Clinton campaign didn't return a call asking for comment.

"Obama's people said, `We'll get back to you in two months.' That was Friday. There's a problem right there," he said.

Obama's campaign also didn't return calls seeking comment.

Even Dodd - whose staff tallied the time each candidate got at Sunday's debate - isn't going.

"It's the key topic of the campaign," Guttman said. "All these other debates spend 90 seconds or so on Iraq, then move on to abortion and immigration and everything else.

"If people want to be president, they should be able to speak for more than 90 seconds on the top issue facing the country."

The center plans a Republican debate on Iraq this fall.

Guttman also noted how much the news media focus on the so-called "top tier" of candidates. That's the top tier as defined by public opinion polls. "People seem to think the American people can only handle two candidates at a time."

That might be true much later in the campaign, when primary voters in each major party focus most on those who are perceived to have a real shot at winning.

But this is awfully early. Democrats and Republicans have a right not only to hear all the voices in their parties represented in the debates but also to see all the candidates forced to speak to all those crosscurrents.

Take Kucinich. He's arguably the most anti-Iraq war candidate in the Democratic campaign. He speaks for a big part of the party's base. But he got only a small slice of the debate time.

Or Biden. He could end up the party's nominee. Remember, polls can and often do change wildly once the voting starts.

Should that happen, the media would have to look back and explain why they didn't spend more time exploring and exposing his thinking in these debates.


(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at sthomma AT

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