I wish everyone would stop calling them "debates." Even back when the League of Women Voters first televised confrontations between presidential candidates, they weren't debates. At best they were stiff, unnatural political discussions. Now that the two major political parties run them, they are carefully controlled soundbite gotcha matches. Like most everything about our campaign process, they insult the voters and undermine democracy.
Debates ought to inform. I doubt that anyone listening to the first "debate" could say what the two candidates actually proposed to do about medicine for seniors or education or social security. Put it in a lockbox -- exactly what does that mean and why is it necessary?
Debates should explore assumptions and sources. Bush and Gore threw inconsistent numbers at each other for 90 minutes. No one stopped to say, "Wait a minute, let's get to the bottom of this. Where did that number come from and why is it different from your opponent's number?"
Debates should have basic ground rules, such as: Answer the question you are asked. If you try to run away verbally, you will be interrupted and hauled back to the topic at hand.
Repetition of obvious nonsense should be ruled out of bounds and a penalty assessed (three free minutes to your opponent). For example:
* Irrelevant insinuations about "character." From his harping on "restoring dignity to the presidency," one would think that George W. Bush has never noticed that Al Gore is not Bill Clinton. To tar Gore with repeated references to the unsavory conduct of another man is just plain foul.
* Accusations about the other side's fund-raising practices, unless your own are completely above board. Let him who is without sin throw the stones. If no one can, let's get serious about campaign reform.
* Claiming to cause economic prosperity. A president does not create economic booms. He lucks into them. A president does not have the power to bring an economy up or down. Everyone knows that. Cut it out.
* Truth-confounding jabs, such as Bush's taunt about many of Gore's suggested policies, "Why didn't you do it in the last eight years?" He knows perfectly well that his own party, in control of Congress, stopped it. (Why Gore doesn't say that back is beyond me.)
* Mom and Apple-Pie platitudes. Such as the whole discussion about education, something everyone values but presidents can do little about. Jim Lehrer asked the right question here: "How, by supplying only 6 percent of the education budget, can you solve any education problems?" The answer I heard was "require testing." Kind of like attacking a fever by requiring temperature-taking. No voice was allowed to widen the discussion to the real problems behind problem schools, namely poverty and discrimination.
But the worst things about the "debates" are the questions not asked and the candidates not on the podium. The two controlling parties narrow the discussion to the cramped middle of the political spectrum. It's as if they were trying to spell out the nation's political choices using only the letters from L to P, pretending that the rest of the alphabet doesn't exist.
So when energy prices come up, Bush wants to dig up all the coal and pump up the remaining oil in America, which Gore also wants to do, but Gore also says vague things about alternative fuels.
Gore and Bush muscled it out to see who is most macho about military spending. Who was there to suggest cleaning up the enormous waste in that spending? That position doesn't fit between L and P. Who wondered whether, in a world of terrorists, big armies and weapons are at all relevant to national security? Sorry, that's way out at W or X.
The L to P candidates argued about how to use taxpayer money to pay for overpriced drugs. The candidates disallowed from the debate would have asked why drugs are overpriced.
From L to P they argue over how to make HMOs honor patients' rights. Over at A and B they note that other civilized countries' drug and medical expenses are half of our own, with higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality, and with more doctor choice and less waiting for appointments than any HMO offers. And medical care is equally available to all citizens.
Yes, there is a real difference between L and P. But what if the real solutions and opportunities lie over at A or G or U or Z? How can anyone who knows how to think, or who treasures real democracy, or who sees the selection of the president as a process on a higher level than a sports match, find any meaning or guidance in these so-called "debates?"
Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.