DODGING THE DEBATE
Senator Barack Obama has been compared to former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. Both from the prairie state. Both capable of rhetorical music that sends the heartstrings of highly-educated liberals into harmonic rapture. Both young, relatively inexperienced politicians exalting high-minded ideals over the ruts of the low-road. And in 1952, Stevenson, like Obama today, faced a debate dilemma against his rival in the general election, Dwight D. Eisenhower that was critical to the campaign.
In the general election of 1952, two major networks offered the candidates for President free air time for what would have been the first nationally televised debate. The networks had, for the first time, covered both parties contested conventions that summer and the audience response had been tremendous. CBS, who had created the “anchor” position for Walter Cronkite’s convention coverage, and NBC were anxious to continue the experiment with election-related television.
Eisenhower had wrested the nomination for the Republicans from Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, who thought he had it in the bag going into the convention. The Democrats drafted Stevenson at the convention after the delegates deadlocked over choosing among the nominees who had, unlike Stevenson, run in the primaries. It was the last brokered convention for the Democratic Party, although that may change this year.
The Republicans dreaded the idea of Eisenhower debating Stevenson whose soaring, fluid rhetoric electrified audiences. They didn’t have to worry. Stevenson declined to debate, saying that it would not be fair for him to take advantage of General Eisenhower’s well-deserved war-time fame by forcing him to share a nationally televised stage. It was a high-minded decision, typical of Stevenson, and that’s where the Obama-Stevenson comparison falls apart.
Rather than declining to debate, as Stevenson did for the best of reasons, Obama is dodging a debate with Clinton for the worst of reasons – rank political self-interest. He tanked at the last debate on the stage in Pennsylvania, petty and irrelevant questions from the moderators notwithstanding. Where he had the opportunity to rise above and soar, he slipped, wallowed and soured. Stevenson-esque it was not.
Now Clinton has suggested the kind of debate Stevenson would have relished. No moderators needed or allowed, just one-on-one in the tradition of the great Illinois Senate debates in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. She’s given Obama another chance to rise to the challenge. But Obama is flatly refusing to debate between now and the Indiana primary on May 6th. He claims that twenty-one debates are enough, as if the quantity of encounters mattered more than their quality and context. He also claims that a debate would interfere with talking to voters and taking their questions, proving that Obama is as capable of making an absurd argument as the next politician.
Ten million people watched the last debate. A no-holds barred, Lincoln-Douglas type format could easily double that number. Obama would have a supreme chance to talk to voters, and as to taking questions, perhaps they could be limited to voters from the upcoming primary states to allay Obama’s concerns.
Of course, Obama knows his history and Stevenson ended up the loser in 1952. Political calculation calls for Obama to stay away from any stage with Clinton on it. Rather than going mano-a-mano, he wants to just go mono.
Obama’s great on the stage by himself, a speaker of rare gifts enjoying questions from adoring fans and riffing off shouts of “I love you” from the crowd. But Presidents have to be able to argue, confront, ask tough questions and, yes, debate about the tough issues on a daily basis. They aren’t just “deciders,” as Bush likes to refer to himself, they are leaders who must have a vision and the skills to bring others around to their view so that change can ultimately be made. Watching Obama in a debate, especially the kind Clinton has proposed, would give voters a chance to see if he is more than an inspirational speaker. Such a debate would be a chance to judge leadership skills. Obama should end the dodge and take the challenge.