Guest Matthew Yglesias, Blogger and Staff Writer, The American Propsect To semi-defend our candidates, I think the focus on domestic policy wound up showing us more about the limitations of the debate format than of the two men on the stage. As long as the moderator kept the focus on social issues -- abortion, homosexuality, etc. -- and the fuzzy stuff at the end, both were relatively appealing. I don't find Bush's evangelical worldview appealing, but I'm coming to understand it, and I think he explained it well. Kerry's harder task of explaining the role of the faithful leader with a vision of secular political was also well done.
It was when you got down to the nitty-gritty of economic policy that things fell apart, but how could they not fall apart? Two minutes -- or 90 seconds for a reply -- isn't anywhere close to enough time to lay out a theory of international trade economics and a reasonable policy response to it. The difficulty is only heightened because, in the nature of things, the candidates needed to not only outline a policy answer, but also come across as empathetic. Bush's basic take on globalization, that there's nothing he as president can't do to stop it except try to make the next generation better prepared to deal with it, is a reasonably coherent (if, I think, wrongheaded) position, but it's a political disaster. You simply aren't allowed in American politics to say something like that. So on his second go-through Bush resorted to the preposterous claim that No Child Left Behind is a jobs program.
Kerry, meanwhile, got tagged with a question on social security that embedded a set of demographic and economic predictions from the Department of Health and Human services that are supposed to extend 75 years into the future. To begin to answer the question intelligently, one would need to lay out the assumptions that motivated it first and say something about where they may or may not go wrong. Doing that alone would have taken up all his time, so instead he just kind of batted the question away. The postgame commentators I saw on television all described the debate as "wonky" which makes me wonder if they've ever spoken about these issues to actual wonks. They're just extremely complicated, they involve lots of numbers, and one typically needs some slides or a powerpoint or something to put them all together.
So rather than despair of the candidates, I wonder what could be done to rethink the campaigning process. The televised debate format is a rather arbitrary legacy of the 1960s, and I doubt anyone truly finds it a useful way to better understand the political process or the choices facing the country.