A Clash of Messages

Guest: Cole Campbell, Dean of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada - Reno Nowadays, "staying on message" is the touchstone of political discourse for presidential candidates. Both George Bush and John Kerry excelled at staying planted on their messages in the first presidential debate Thursday night. I agree with Rich that, in this case, staying on message helped crystallize the choice offered by the two candidates. Neither candidate assailed the other on the overworked and underdeveloped grounds of "character," even when moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS's "Newshour" threw out a baited question. The candidates were mostly gracious and civil toward each other, and their respective families. But they didn't shy away from contrasting themselves. Even as George Bush intoned a message of certainty in describing himself, he also worked to frame his opponent as the embodiment of uncertainty and bearer of "mixed messages." And just as John Kerry made the case for competence, he also made clear his contention that the incumbent's course fails the competency standard and that unyielding certainty can be a liability when course corrections are required. The key word, which Rich uses, is clash. (Clash is a term that high school and college debaters, coaches and judges use -- I know because I was all of the above in my salad days.) As a forum for political or policy discourse, debate works best when the debaters' arguments clash. Clash entails offering arguments that connect to each other, showing the connection and extending the line of argument until one side prevails in reasoning or supporting evidence. Of course, debates that are part of a presidential election are not decided by dispassionate judges weighing reasoning and evidence. Rich reminds us that we are the ultimate judges who weigh these arguments using the counterweights of our own values and aspirations.

I think we should give credit to Jim Lehrer for sustaining clash. Lehrer extended the time allotted to the candidates on several questions to let them rebut one another's contentions, putting a finer point on how they differ. He never tried to show off his command of the issues or divert attention to himself. He kept the focus on the candidates and their differences. I can't say I learned a lot I didn't already know. I can't say I changed my preferences. But, to return to Rich's theme of a "religion of public affairs," I can say I felt like a congregant in an important, enriching ritual that affirmed the importance of understanding, embracing and -- ultimately, but not necessarily through debating or balloting -- working through political difference to pursue a common course. See you next week in the temple of democracy.