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Music Cues: Who Wants to Elect a Millionaire?
February 19, 2001

Scott Simon commentary on political primary debates

I would rather watch another rerun of Cheers than see another presidential primary candidates debate. There, I've said it out-loud. No, wait. I like Cheers. Sometimes I think I would almost rather watch a rerun of My Mother, The Car than another presidential primary candidates' debate.

It's not that the debates have been especially vituperative, uninformed, or outrageous. On the contrary. Most of them have seemed civil, informative, and issue-oriented--all the values that editorialists and pundits claim to want to encourage.

But the debates have become so routinized and rehearsed -- filled with pre-scripted soliloquies and practiced outrage--they have lost much of their sense of moment; and the power to surprise.

The first time I saw Alan Keyes ask John McCain what counsel he would give his own daughter about abortion, I was struck by Mr. Keye's debating logic, and moved by Senator McCain's constrained response: "Alan, please don't bring my daughter into this."

That was in New Hampshire, wasn't it? This week, I saw them strike up this attack-and-response duet again in South Carolina. Perhaps next week, they'll stage it again in Michigan, then take the show into Ohio and California. It's not that the candidates lack sincerity. But Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau might be challenged to bring much spontaneity into so rehearsed an exchange. Each candidate has practiced an answer that tickles the particular voters they want to reach, and delivers their lines on-cue.

Some truly dedicated C-SPAN viewers might even be able to move their lips along with their words.

Debates among presidential candidates used to be occasions. Scores of millions of people watched Richard Nixon glower against John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan smilingly confide that perhaps he quoted old Greek philosophers because he was the only candidate old enough to actually remember them. The audience for this campaign's debates so far have been a million here, a million and a half there. Cable broadcasters alone on television run the entire debate. This reduces the first-run audience to only those who can afford cable. The major networks, so far, usually feature only sound-bites--which reduces the debate to an exchange of slogans.

The candidates, and even the networks, are scarcely to blame. Holding debates from state-to-state seems an unassailably good idea.

But staging so many debates that the audience shrinks to just a few hundred thousand people with an unusual, almost pathological interest in the federal tax code doesn't do much to kindle wide voter interest. It takes a cast that should have the appeal of Cheers -- and puts them in My Mother, The Car.