Autocratic Campaign 2008 — Yes or No?

After listening to a few minutes of last night’s Democratic Presidential Debate, I’m struck once again by the drama derived from the media’s (and audience’s) desire to cut through candidates evasive answers to find out where they stand. A candidate certainly has motive to give vague answers. Why alienate part of the electorate if you can avoid it?

However, demanding precision in Presidential campaign debates misunderstands leadership in our federal republic. If we were electing a party in a parliamentary system or an autocrat, Yes or No questions would be appropriate. However, I don’t want the candidate’s to choose between false alternatives, and hypothetical ones at that. You see, States give out driver’s licenses. In a public forum, a candidate should clarify the context for any one policy (driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, for example), be able to identify the various interests and groups that should be involved in the process and demonstrate the powers of persuasion necessary to help get the nation to the next step.

This is the difference between forensic and deliberative modes of speech and our body politic suffers from this lack of distinction.

Update: Chris Bowers from Open Left comments intelligently and humorously on Precision in Debates.

Here’s what I’m referencing:

[after Obama answers broad question about illegal immigration]

Blitzer: I want to just press you on this point because it’s a logical follow-up, and then I want to go and ask everyone. On the issue that apparently tripped up Senator Clinton earlier, the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, I take it, Senator Obama, you support giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Is that right?

SEN. OBAMA: When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance to protect public safety. (Scattered applause.) That was my intention. And — but I have to make sure that people understand the problem we have here is not drivers licenses. Undocumented workers don’t come here to drive. (Laughter.) They don’t go — they’re not coming here to go to the In-N-Out Burger. That’s not the reason they’re here. They’re here to work. And so instead of being distracted by what has now become a wedge issue, let’s focus on actually solving the problem that —

MR. BLITZER: All right.

SEN. OBAMA: — this administration, the Bush administration, has done nothing about.

MR. BLITZER: Well, let’s go through everybody because I want to be precise. I want to make sure the viewers and those of us who are here fully understand all of your positions on this. Barring, avoiding, assuming there isn’t going to be comprehensive immigration reform, do you support or oppose drivers licenses for illegal immigrants?

SEN. OBAMA: I am not proposing that that’s what we do. What I’m saying is that we can’t — (interrupted by laughter). No, no, no, no, look, I have already said I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that drivers licenses at the state level can make that happen. But what I also —

MR. BLITZER: All right.

SEN. OBAMA: But what I also know, Wolf, is that if we keep on getting distracted by this problem, then we are not solving it.

MR. BLITZER: But — because this is the kind of question that is sort of available for a yes or no answer. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) Either you support it or you oppose it. Let’s go down and get a yes or no from everyone starting with Senator Edwards.

The pundits were pleased that Sen. Clinton learned her lesson and simply said “no.”


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