September 24, 2004

: Rules of the game…

As I have said many times before, presidential debates are designed to control the message, and voters find them politically useful. These are “debates” in name only. They cannot even be characterized as joint press conferences because that suggests at least the possibility of news happening. (News is certainly happening in the sense that the candidates are speaking and their propositions may be fact-checked. But do you suppose such fact-checking will occur, or will we read/see only he-said, she-said accounts followed by who-won commentary?)

News has happened in the past. And as I showed yesterday, some of the rules for the 2004 debates appear to be clearly aimed at eliminating any possibility that such past situations will arise again.

Further, the rules outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding place interesting rhetorical constraints on the debates such that all we’re likely to hear are spin points. Having not seen such documents from past debates, I cannot speak to how these things were once handled. But it appears to me that this document demonstrates a high degree of refinement the endeavor to eliminate news from the debates.

I still think citizens will find them useful because I think presentation of policy plays only a partial (minor?) role in the political utility of these staged events. Americans are, perhaps, looking for a president more than listening for one.

Consider these rules:

  • Section 5b: No opening statements. This means no candidate gets the advantage of framing a debate. This ensures that neither candidate can open with a statement such as: “What you will hear from my opponent is…”
  • Section 5e: A candidate may not ask his opponent a direct question, but he may ask rhetorical questions. In short, a rhetorical question is one that suggests its own answer or one for which an answer is apparent in the context of the question. This means candidates may ask questions of the ether. The point here is to direct the presentation of the interrogative away from the object. Or, to eliminate the academic mumbo-jumbo, this means they can’t look at each other as they ask obvious questions. The arrow then misses the heart, but the (spin) point is made.
  • Section 6a controls how the moderator will handle asking questions and subsequent “discussion,” i.e. follow-up questions. The candidate who received the original question gets to speak first in any subsequent discussion. Both are limited to 30 seconds of discussion. This ensures that both candidates will be able to end each question with a spin point and comes close to ensuring that spins points are all that passes their lips. (Test this for yourself. Write a short statement and time your reading of it. You may be surprised how few words it takes to fill 30 seconds.)
  • Section 7f dictates that the audience for the town-hall debate will be made up of equal numbers of “soft” supporters of the two candidates. If we understand “soft” to mean “not vociferous,” this comes close to ensuring that no audience member “goes off,” –thus forcing the moderator into the uncomfortable duty of cutting the person off (and thus making the two candidates look like whimps who can’t handle a tough question from a citizen).

You get the idea. There are still more interesting rules that constrain the rhetoric. I encourage you to read the memo.

The memo projects an ethos of fear. These campaigns fear a face-to-face, open exchange of ideas. I understand this fear because in many ways it is justified in our media environment. We live within a mediated socio-political system that does not encourage truth and honesty in civic discourse. And we do not have a national political press that’s willing to sort out the truth for us.

4 Responses

  1. Resident Harriden 

    Documents like “Memorandum of Understanding” were made to be broken, just like McCain-Feingold. I didn’t read the whole thing – are there consequences (like forfeiting the election) for violations? My guess is that even now both campaigns are plotting ways to get around this document of silliness.

  2. RH… the only obvious consequences for violating the rules are these:

    1- The moderator scolds the perp.
    2- The perp risks looking like a cheat.

    Those are certainly not harsh consequences 🙂 And I agree–the competent campaign communications professionals are spending a lot time right now devising ways to get around the rules. And the really good ones are dreaming up new rhetorical strategies that will be ruled out next year if they prove effective.

  3. Resident Harriden 

    Well-known professor of English Lit. and law at U of I (Chicago) and general all round gadfly, Stanley Fish, has an Op-Ed in NYTimes, wherein he describes an experiment he conducted with his freshman writing class. Using side-by-side articles in NYTimes, he asked his students to vote for whomever (Kerry or Bush) exhibited the most skill at presenting ideas. In the process, he destroys the idea that “nuance” = intelligence, or in his words, “If you can’t explain an idea of policy plainly in one or two sentences, it’s not yours”… But more shocking to me than the fact that avowed Kerry backer Fish gives GWB mad props is the fact that someone like Fish is teaching a freshman course! http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/24/opinion/24fish.html

  4. Resident Harriden 

    Well-known professor of English Lit. and law at U of I (Chicago) and general all round gadfly, Stanley Fish, has an Op-Ed in NYTimes, wherein he describes an experiment he conducted with his freshman writing class. Using side-by-side articles in NYTimes, he asked his students to vote for whomever (Kerry or Bush) exhibited the most skill at presenting ideas. In the process, he destroys the idea that “nuance” = intelligence, or in his words, “If you can’t explain an idea of policy plainly in one or two sentences, it’s not yours”… But more shocking to me than the fact that avowed Kerry backer Fish gives GWB mad props is the fact that someone like Fish is teaching a freshman course! http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/24/opinion/24fish.html