Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Thoughts About Last Week's Republican Debate

Last week, I was invited by a friend of mine to join with a number of members of the Republican party in order to watch the televised Presidential debate held in the Reagan Library in California.

In a big city in which both political parties were equally influential, it would be an enormous privilege and honor to be invited to such a gathering, but here in Chicago, where Republicans are all but extinct, it probably isn't nearly as impressive to say that one is close friends with one of the local leaders of the Republican party. Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate the friendship of the attorney who invited me to the event. His wife is currently the interim committeeman for the Republican organization in the influential 42nd ward.

After a suitable period of mingling with one another and sharing various food and drink items, we all gathered around the TV and watched the debate.

I soon found myself wishing that I had a written transcript of the debate so that I could refresh my memory regarding who had said what. As it turns out, I just found an online copy of that transcript. I would have preferred a downloadable PDF file, but I'll take what I can get.

Publicly televised political debates are strange in some ways. Like sporting events, the amount of time taken up by such debates is small in comparison with the amount of time devoted to post-debate analysis. All of the professional and semi-professional pundits feel compelled to weigh in on the significance of every little thing about the debate, even with regard to matters which are utterly lacking in the kind of substance which ought to characterize matters of such great national importance.

In an ideal world, a candidate's ideas and intelligence ought to be the only things which matter. In the real world, unfortunately, style often triumphs over substance. So the suave and handsome Mitt Romney was the clear favorite, whereas poor Tommy Thompson never really had much of a chance in the debate, regardless of the merits of what he had to say.

On a psychological level, that's understandable, especially considering that we live in a superficial society which seems to think that people like Paris Hilton actually deserve the kind of attention they receive from the press. But it's disconcerting when one compares the current state of affairs to the way things were when Abe Lincoln was the President. Abe was hardly what one would describe as handsome, although we now think of his visage as being inherently presidential for the simple reason that we've become accustomed to his image. As for being suave, it is said that he was chronically depressed, which helps to explain why photos of a smiling Abe Lincoln are extremely rare. At the time, Lincoln's passion for his vision of what America could and should be compensated for any lack of charisma on his part. But that was long before the age of TV.

Charisma or not, some have said that Mitt Romney is likely to find it difficult to acquire the support of the conservative and evangelical Christians who form a substantial part of the Republican base, since Mormonism is considered by many Christians to be a cult. There may be some merit in that view, but I think that a much bigger problem for Romney is going to be the fact that his recent "pro-life conversion" seems insincere and unconvincing.

When he was asked to explain the switch in his current position, Romney could have said that he had initially been pro-choice on the issue because he had been deceived by the standard propagandistic arguments heard time and time again from defenders of the abortion industry, but the more he considered the merits of those arguments, the more he realized how nonsensical they really were. He could have then offered up an example of such an argument, and he could have explained why he had come to realize that the argument was bogus.

Instead, his lame explanation was that when he studied the issue of cloning, he realized that society had gone "too far" into a "brave new world" mentality. In other words, by his own testimony, Mitt Romney wasn't persuaded to switch to the pro-life side because he had come to believe that it was intrinsically wrong for the state to sanction the deliberate killing of millions of unborn children. His only reason for switching was that he thought that legalizing abortion had set our feet upon a slippery slope which led to other things he considered to be unacceptable. Well, he was certainly right about the slippery slope. But even if legalizing abortion had never led Americans into a "brave new world" mentality with regard to cloning, legal abortion would still be an egregious assault on the fundamental right to life with which every human being is endowed by the Creator from the moment of conception. I don't think that Mitt Romney really understands that.

If the status quo regarding legalized abortion is ever to change in this country, it will be because our leaders are men and women of principle who are passionately committed to ending abortion, not just during the election season but all of the time.

If I cared about nothing but charisma and personality and good looks, then I'd probably be gung ho about Mitt Romney, just as I would have been gung ho about Bill Clinton if all I'd cared about was whether or not our President could play a mean saxophone. But charisma, good looks and the ability to play the saxophone are equally irrelevant when it comes to the qualities which make for a great President. We need an intelligent and principled President who will do everything possible to reverse Roe v. Wade, whether it's in the form of judicial appointments or support for a constitutional amendment protecting human life from the moment of conception.

Some of the current crop of Republican candidates impress me more than Romney with regard to the abortion issue. (Huckabee, for instance, seems to be one of the better options.) None of the current crop impresses me as much as Alan Keyes impressed me, but the situation isn't totally hopeless.

What really bothers me, though, is the way the political process in this country is dominated by the media and by opinion polls. The media is so quick to proclaim winners that it sometimes causes crucial funding and support to dry up for those who are not so favored. That, in turn, has the effect of depriving some voters of the opportunity to select from the full field of available candidates, due to the geographically sequential nature of primary elections, where people living in Iowa and New Hampshire are offered more choices than people living in other states which wait much longer to hold their primary elections.

General elections are held on the same day in every state of the Union. Why can't we pass a law requiring the same thing with regard to primaries? Then it wouldn't matter where voters lived, in terms of how many candidates they were allowed to choose from. Voters from Iowa and New Hampshire wouldn't have any more opportunities than voters from other states.

As for polling organizations which seem to think that people want a constant running commentary about who is "winning" at any given moment, I think it's downright strange to claim to know who is ahead in the race when no one has even been given the opportunity to vote yet!!! Are we such impatient people that we cannot wait until all the votes have been counted before we declare winners and losers?

Has it ever occurred to anyone that the premature manner in which the media proclaim candidates to be winners and losers skews public perceptions in such a way as to play a politically unhealthy role in the outcome of the election? Why are such running commentaries needed? Who do they serve, other than the media organizations which use such programming in order to beef up their ratings?

If I were ever to be elected to high office (which is highly unlikely), one of the first things I'd do would be to introduce a bill banning all election coverage until after all of the votes had been counted. This would not amount to censorship. Telling people when they can report certain news items is not the same thing as telling them what news items they can report.

When election results are reported after the election is over, the reporting of that news has no influence on the outcome of the election. It's incredibly naive to think that the incessant and thoroughly unnecessary reporting leading up to the election is similarly uninfluential.

Yes, we need certain types of public political events, such as public debates. But the pollsters and the pundits need to shut their yaps until after the election, so that voters can be allowed to make up their own minds without the corrupting effects of outside influences. If people decide who to vote for based on their perceptions of who is most popular and who is most likely to win, then by definition, they aren't basing their votes primarily on who they consider to be the best candidates based strictly on the merits of those candidates and their positions.

Our current lack of regulation pertaining to how and when elections are covered by the media creates a situation in which substantive candidates are pushed to the wayside in favor of those who are able to gain an early lead in the polls, no matter how they achieve that goal.

Of course, in an age where everybody and his or her brother or sister has a blog, there's no way that one can keep people from talking about their perceptions after events such as last week's debate. But such online discussions don't have the power to shape and corrupt election results the way that reporting from the major TV networks has the power to corrupt election results.

If I were to say, "Among Republican candidates, Mitt Romney is currently leading the pack in the race for the White House," you'd probably say, "That's your opinion," and you would be right. But if a reporter from one of the major networks says the same thing, people start to think of Romney as the leader in the race.

In truth, TV network reporters are just as opinionated and biased as anyone else. They often get things wrong when they predict who will win and who will lose. When it comes to political races, what they report as "facts" basically consists of a mixture of personal opinions and conjecture based on the supposition that political polls are reliable sources of information.

I personally think that the reliability of polls leaves a lot to be desired. The way questions are phrased can greatly influence the way in which the questions are answered, and such factors can lead to misleading poll results. Other factors (which I may discuss at another time) can skew poll results as well.

Even when polls are reliable, poll results are merely a snapshot of what the populace is thinking at any given moment. A slight shift in public opinion can make a big difference in some cases. Consider the classic example of Truman holding up a newspaper proclaiming that Dewey was the winner in the Presidential elections. Truman had a big grin on his face, because he knew that the newspaper's announcement had been premature.

The trouble with early reporting is that those who hear the early reports may change their minds about who to vote for, based on what they hear from the media. For example, if a person is watching a TV news show which says that a certain candidate has only received 10% of the vote so far, versus 90% for the other guy, that person may think, "The candidate I prefer hasn't got a chance of winning. There's no point in my voting, because the other person is going to win regardless of whether I vote or not." As a result, that person may decide to abstain from voting, or the person may actually switch his or her vote to the candidate who, in his or her mind, is going to win anyway. Either way, the outcome of the election is affected by such early reporting.

Likewise, if a person perceives that his or her preferred candidate is bound to win, that person may stay away from the polls because he or she thinks there's no need to vote in order to insure victory for his or her preferred candidate.

People often complain that our elections aren't really representative of the will of the majority of the people, because of low voter turnout. Well, why do you suppose there's such low voter turnout during many elections? Some would argue that those who fail to vote just don't care about the elections. That may be true in some cases, but I think that a more persuasive explanation in most cases is that people have been persuaded by the media that the outcome of such elections has already been predetermined. People who fail to vote often do so because they think there's no point in voting. And that, by and large, is the fault of the media.

Prohibiting election coverage until all of the votes are counted may be an excellent idea, but realistically, it probably isn't going to happen. So my advice when it comes to listening to media pundits and their ideas about who is winning and who is losing is to basically ignore what others say and vote your conscience rather than allowing perceptions about the race to influence your choices about whether or not to vote and who to vote for. Even if your candidate loses, at least you'll be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know that you were not to blame for that loss.

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