A couple weeks ago out of curiosity, I traveled to the New Hampshire Institute of Public Politics to hear Speaker Newt Gingrich in an open policy forum. The former speaker discussed substantive solutions to the nation's various problems for over an hour and a half. While you can disagree with his proposals for adopting the Chilean model of Social Security and establishing personal medical savings accounts, there was no questioning Newt's commitment that night to the bigger picture.
However, the evening proved to be more of an education on the media than on the candidate. Following the discussion, national and local reporters converged on Gingrich with the sole purpose of gauging his opinion on and inciting conflict with his primary opponents. The former speaker had failed to mention the words "Romney" or "Santorum" in the forum, but the press moved ahead with their relentless questions on the petty politics of the day. There were no questions on Newt's plan to restructure the existing tax code, no questions on Newt's Middle East foreign policy, and no questions on Newt's long-term energy plan. Ironically, the reported story of the day was Gingrich's presidential campaign was a mere kamikaze exercise to destroy Governor Mitt Romney.
While we rightfully criticize our "leaders" in Washington D.C. for their inability to move beyond partisanship, our major news networks and newspapers have become accomplices in creating an environment of short-term and short-sighted political discourse. The incessant "horse-race" coverage of this Republican primary contest has transformed a serious race into a mere reality show contest. Like an episode of MTV's Real World, the mainstream media infuses us with an onslaught of stories about participant feuds and irrelevant personal information.
With the lone exception of Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, the mainstream media has failed to examine and critically evaluate the effects of any of the candidates economic, healthcare, and budgetary proposals. This tireless effort to uncover the "dirt" in each candidate's past often comes at the expense of evaluating each campaign's policy platform. As a result, the divide between the reporting politicos in Washington and an American population demanding serious solutions is ever growing. How many unemployed Americans benefit from knowing the status of Gov. Romney's tax returns? How many in-debt college students benefit from knowing Speaker Gingrich's marital history? How many seniors are relieved in knowing Sen. Santorum received fees for lobbying?
The Republican debates have come to represent the embodiment of this grand focus on the insignificant. The most recent debate in Florida found "Bain" mentioned more than "Social Security." The word "lobby" used more than "Medicare." NBC felt it worthy to discuss Terri Schiavo, while China was not mentioned once in the entire discussion. The moderators recently also seem to enjoy posing hypothetical situations in the distant future, most notably with contraception and Cuban uprisings. Note to reporters, America has enough real problems to discuss without venturing into an alternative future.
While it is easy to write off these petty questions and discussions as an inevitable part of the political process, the trivialness of the presidential campaign is actually a recent development in American history. Anyone with a little (or maybe too much) extra time on their hands should watch the 1980 Republican primary debate in Houston. Gone are the glitzy sets and "gottcha" questions, but in their place is a discussion of substance and policy proposals. Instead of opening the discussion with the politics of personal destruction, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush debate specific tax proposals and budgetary goals. There was no discussion of Reagan's Democratic past or Bush's partial support for Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The dialogue was civil, but informative. In one hour, the viewer discerns more about the candidates' goals in domestic and foreign policy than anyone has learned about the new crop of candidates in our biweekly debates.
In attempt to change the trajectory of the presidential campaign from the frivolous to the significant, there are number of ideas that should be considered. Television networks and major newspapers ought to work together in creating policy evaluation panels. Gather the premiere economic minds from around the country in academia, business, and politics and televise a group discussion on the merits and weaknesses of each candidates' jobs plan. Apply this same mindset to national defense, healthcare, and energy. These panels would prevent the candidates from hiding behind mere slogans and allow the voters to choose a president based on real substance.
With regards to these primary debates, let's place a moratorium on questions relating to the candidates' past, conservative bona fides, and electoral prospects. It is not that these matters are unimportant, but the American public has heard these same talking-point answers over and over again. Debates should be designed around issues, with each candidate given time to articulate his specific policy plans on the economy, national defense, healthcare, entitlements, energy, and the environment. Moderators ought to follow up with critiques for each candidate position, and allow opponents on stage the opportunity to question each other on their ideas.
These suggestions are small initiatives, but which could still potentially carry a great impact. It's time for the political discourse in this country to focus on building America up rather than tearing one's political opponent down.