This year, more than any other I can recall, the pundits predict that the debates can be decisive in the presidential election. James Fallows in The Atlantic (September) made the case that Gov. Mitt Romney was an excellent debater and that President Obama may be in for a surprise. I watched nearly all the debates during the primaries and this assessment of Romney’s skill came as a surprise to me. As I write this the polls give Obama a strong and growing lead, and, it is said, this is Romney’s last chance—barring an unforeseen international crisis like an Israeli invasion of Iran—to turn it around.
When the ritual of the presidential debate was introduced in 1960 I was locked away at Shrub Oak, the Jesuit philosophy seminary in the Westchester hills when TV was still a forbidden fruit. In my two years there we were allowed to watch only one show: The Bishop Fulton J. Sheen show then a wildly popular program, in the episode in which he evaluated modern literature for his audience. The only thing I recall is that he attacked Graham Greene, then and now one of the world’s greatest Catholic novelists, for his negative attitude.
To see the first Kennedy-Nixon debate we had to break a rule. One of our classmates had discovered an old TV in the physics lab in the basement. There we watched this historic moment, cheering of course for JFK, in secret. Since then, writing for America, Commonweal, or National Catholic Reporter, I have covered Democratic Conventions and seen nearly all the debates. Oddly, only a few minutes stay lodged in my head: Mondale promising honestly to raise taxes; George H. W. Bush looking at his watch; the “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” reply; and Hillary Clinton threatening to “obliterate Iran.” I had to ask myself if she really new what the word “obliterate” meant and how she could commit herself to so immoral an act.
In Sunday’s Washington Post (September 30), John Donvan argues that the structure of the debates is the problem. They are designed to keep the debaters out of trouble. Rather, he says, we should face the fact that a debate is a fight and put them in the ring and let them duke it out in 10 minute exchanges rather than quickly fall back on canned quips and poses. “I’m glad you asked that question, because it reminds me of the time when my grandfather gave me advice, ‘Always say what you believe, and believe what you say.’ I have dedicated my political career to being faithful to my grandfather’s words.”
Several articles have proposed questions. I add one for each.
For Romney: Governor, in your acceptance speech at the Republican Convention you sarcastically mocked President Obama’s environmental policies by accusing him of attempting to stop the ocean from rising. As if that was a ludicrous idea. A few days later, however, the New York Times front page explained how the rising ocean was threatening New York. The implication of your remarks is that you do not believe in climate change or that this change is a major threat to the environment today. This leads us to wonder about your basic scientific knowledge and attitude toward science and public policy. Do you believe in evolution? Do you believe that the human person has evolved over history from lower species? Do you believe the climate is changing as a result of our polluting the atmosphere?
For Obama: In your attempt to establish an image as a strong leader you have repeatedly bragged that you killed Ben Laden. And you have authorized hundreds of drone strikes which have killed hundreds of innocent civilians. But the virtue of courage, which is essential for a moral as well as a military leader, also requires one to confront domestic enemies who may have the power to effect your reelection. You know from your study, and from your previous policy positions, that the proliferation of every sort of gun—handguns, automatic weapons, etc, —is having a literally murderous impact on our public life. Yet you are intimidated by the National Rifle Association, whose policies you know could lead to every American toting a pistol—students in classes, everyone on the street, hikers in national parks, churchgoers everywhere. You know that’s crazy, but you are scared to say so. Why?
Raymond A. Schroth