Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Presidential Debates That Aren’t

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

OK, we now know for the umpteenth time that Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain will cut taxes, provide affordable health care to everyone, drill for more oil, expand nuclear power use, end global warming, rein in the Wall Street fast buck artists, take out Osama Bin Laden, and end the war in Iraq either by withdrawal or victory. And yes we know that both have had a tough family upbringing, and therefore they know what working people have to go through.

These themes have been rehashed and reworked so many times that we can recite them in our sleep. But what we don’t know and certainly haven’t heard in the debates is what Obama and McCain will do about failing urban public schools, the HIV-AIDS pandemic, their view of the death penalty, the drug crisis, how they’ll combat hate crimes, shore up crumbling and deteriorating urban transportation systems, and what type of judges they will appoint to the federal judiciary and to the Supreme Court.
The latter is especially crucial since there may be two possibly three high court vacancies during the first McCain or Obama White House term. We don’t know what they’ll do about these problems because the debate format, the questions and questioners, and even the internet queries play it close, predictable and safe. The result is that the only thing the 50 to 60 million viewers who have tuned into the two debates know what McCain and Obama have to say about these equally vital public policy concerns and problems can only be gleaned from canned snippets from their speeches on the campaign trail, or more likely by going to their campaign websites. For most, that’s not going to happen.

Even on the issues of health care, Iraq, and Iran that the debates have obsessed on, the response from Obama and McCain has been a disappointment, a disappointment that is in that neither has gone much past the canned lines that they have endlessly recited when asked their stance on them. But there were at least two or three moments during debate two when both contenders seemed poised to turn and face each other, take the gloves off, and directly challenge each other on their votes and positions on legislation on taxes, health care, Iraq, and Iran. For instance when McCain demanded that Obama come clean and tell what the penalties would be on small businesses with his health care plan. Or, when Obama charged that McCain voted against the Children Health Act. Or, when McCain implored Obama to admit that the surge in Iraq worked, and wanted to know why he still wouldn’t admit it. Or, when Obama claimed that McCain voted multiple times against alternative energy funding.
These were missed opportunities for the voters to really get the measure of each one beyond the stock pitches. In the three week countdown to E Day, November 4, my suspicion is that voters will still be in a fog regarding Obama and McCain’s stance on the “other” issues that have gotten only the barest of shrift. But then again there’s one more debate.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).