Debating the Debates: Early Presidential Campaigning
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Later in the program, are high gas prices really hurting us, or are they just getting on our nerves?
But first, the 2008 presidential election is almost a year and a half away, and already 18 Democratic and Republican candidates have already participated in five debates between them. But as we found out yesterday, one of the country's elder statesmen is not impressed.
Mr. MARIO CUOMO (Former Governor, New York): We haven't been able to get any of the top three to debate one another because they're all playing the same game. They don't want to debate one another. Why? Because they're afraid of having to answer tough questions.
MARTIN: That was former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, speaking on yesterday's program. And now word comes of another debate invitation, this one from the University of Miami and Univision, the Spanish language network. They've invited all the candidates for a Spanish language debate this September. So that got us to thinking, do all these debates really serve the American voter? And if not, what would?
We're going to hear from the distinguished political analyst Marvin Kalb, who has moderated more than a few debates himself. But first, Dallas Morning News staff writer Macarena Hernandez. Macarena, thanks for joining us.
Ms. MACARENA HERNANDEZ (Columnist, Dallas Morning News): Hi, Michel. Really good to be with you.
MARTIN: So, Macarena, English is the national language, if not by law, then by practice. So why a debate conducted in Spanish?
Ms. HERNANDEZ: There's probably several reasons for that, one of them being that the Latino community is so diverse. You have a big fragment of the Latino community who only speaks Spanish, or who's more comfortable with Spanish and who are voters. And so I am pretty sure that political strategists want to reach out to those potential voters, especially right now with all the talk about immigration reform.
MARTIN: Now, we asked Univision to come on, but they said that they weren't quite ready to talk about their plans. So, Macarena, you know, you covered these issues - a broad range of issues - for a very long time. What issues to do you think such a debate would address that might not get attention in an English language event?
Ms. HERNANDEZ: Well, I would hope that they would hammer out or - and talk at length about immigration reform, because that's definitely one of the issues of most importance, not to the Latino community in general, but definitely to Univision's audience, and also education. Poll after poll shows that Latinos are really concerned about education. It's one of the top issues - and the economy and future jobs. So it's not just about immigration, but I guess if you have…
MARTIN: I'm sorry.
Ms. HERNANDEZ: …lower that issue more deeply.
MARTIN: I'm sorry, Macarena, we're having a little trouble with your line. So I'm going to bring in Marvin Kalb right now. Marvin, are you there?
Professor MARVIN KALB (Political Analyst; Fellow, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University): Yes, I am.
MARTIN: Okay. We're going to broaden our discussion, and I hope Macarena can join us again, if we can fix the technical problem. But we're going to speak with Marvin Kalb. He's a fellow at Harvard Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. And he's joining us from his home in Maryland. Marvin, thanks for joining us.
Prof. KALB: My pleasure.
MARTIN: You've been writing about presidential debates for years. What do you think about a Spanish-language debate?
Prof. KALB: I think it's kind of foolish. It's a limited idea. I understand completely the thought about reaching out to the Hispanic community. That makes perfect sense, even if you weren't in the midst of a presidential campaign. But this is a government that functions in English. The president of the United States can do very well in his job without speaking Spanish. So, look, who are the people who are going to accept an invitation to a Spanish-language debate? Only a presidential candidate who speaks Spanish. So Richardson will say, yes, sure. Chris Dodd will say, yes, sure. But most of the others are going to say no because they don't speak Spanish. So I'm not really sure that this reaches out to terribly many people.
MARTIN: Well, Univision does have more viewers, as I understand it, than CNN and MSNBC, and both of them have already broadcast debates.
Prof. KALB: Yeah. And what they're doing is taking an English-language debate and translating it into Spanish, or just running it in English, and that makes perfect sense. Sure, if you were a Russian and you wanted to know what's going on in the United States in terms of the debates and presidential politics, you need to learn English or you'd have somebody translate it into Russian. I have no problem with that. I think the outreach idea makes sense. But the thought that a presidential candidate who doesn't speak Spanish is going to say yes to an invitation to a Spanish-language debate is silly.
MARTIN: Well, let's see - well, as we know now - as we said that Univision has declined to come on but the Miami Herald reported that Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, who do speak Spanish, have given firm yeses. Hillary Clinton and Republican - Democrat Hillary and Republican Tom Tancredo have given firm nos.
Prof. KALB: Right.
MARTIN: Are you surprised that Hillary Clinton isn't participating?
Prof. KALB: I'm not at all surprised. I think she has probably very limited Spanish. Why broadcast a weakness that you have to a community whose vote you're courting? It doesn't make any sense.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the broader issue. What do you think about all - and you know what, and, Marvin, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that, you know, I've agreed to participate in a debate later this month that's going to be broadcasted on PBS that's supposed to focus on issues of particular concern to African-Americans. It's being hosted by Tavis…
Prof. KALB: That's great.
MARTIN: But the question is raised, I think, by the same question I would have asked Macarena and about the Spanish-language debate. Is there a sense in which this is narrow-casting at a time when these candidates should be abrogating constituencies and thinking about speaking to the broader population? Is there any concern that this is making them too narrow in their messages?
Prof. KALB: You know, I think it's a wonderful idea to have a debate, let's say an hour or two-hour debate, on issues that are of concern to African-Americans. Absolutely. Why not? I think it's extremely important that there be time set aside on American television for a discussion of the truly important issues in this campaign.
Look, when you have a set of debates such as we've witnessed with the Democrats and the Republicans this week in New Hampshire, where the anchorman, who's a first class reporter - Wolf Blitzer - can say please answer this question in 15 seconds, raise your hand whether you think it's a great idea to do this or that. Those are not the way decisions are reached in the White House. These are serious matters. They ought to be addressed in a serious way. It is one of the reasons why a number of us up at the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School -years ago, this goes back about 15 years - would try to find a way that would lead to more debates in a more substantive way, even if a more limited number of people watch. I do take that into account. And we came up with this idea of nine Sundays. And it really - I think it's - obviously. I think it's a good idea.
MARTIN: I want to hear more about that but before we do, I want to…
Prof. KALB: Yeah.
MARTIN: …we got Macarena back.
Prof. KALB: Oh, good.
MARTIN: And I just want to give her a chance to respond to - I don't know if you were able to hear Marvin Kalb, Macarena. I asked him what his opinion was of the idea of a Spanish language debate and he said, he thought it was a little dumb because the only people who are going to respond are people who are fluent in Spanish. And as far as we know that's only two candidates - Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd - who happen to be the only people who's given firm yeses so far. So what would you say?
Ms. HERNANDEZ: Yeah. I'm not surprised that people are weighing their options whether that they should go on Univision or not, because it does send a lot of signals out there, especially at a time when immigration reform is such a hot issue and so divisive. But I think that the more attention you bring to the presidential debate, the more opportunity you give Univision and other Latin American outlets who will take a cue from Univision and start the discussion about the conversations that are happening in this country - particularly as it relates to immigration.
Because by the time when news reaches Latin America, it gets completely filtered down to, like, the wall on the border or just amnesty, but you don't get the nuanced conversation about immigration. And I think the more we can do to promote that conversation and promote just what the United States is thinking with our neighbors to the south, I think that's a good thing in general.
MARTIN: Okay. Marvin, you wanted to tell us about your proposal for nine weekly presidential debates dealing up to Election Day. Now, presumably, this would occur after the nominees have both been selected. So you'd only be talking about two candidates.
Prof. KALB: That's correct. Exactly. And we know from the studies and we know from all kinds of polling data that the American people begin to focus in a serious way on the presidential campaign sometime between Labor Day - that's early September - until Election Day. And there happens to be a period of roughly nine weeks between Labor Day and Election Day when the American people get serious about who they're going to vote for.
And so what we thought would be a good idea: On each Sunday of these nine weeks, one network at a time - that means there are nine major networks out there - one network at a time provide an hour or an hour and a half for the two or possibly three presidential candidates to discuss one major issue at a time.
Look, any presidential candidate who's worth anything knows the answer to the first two or three questions about Iraq, about abortion, about taxes. But what happens when you get to the fifth and sixth question? You've got to begin to think yourself. And for the first time if this would happen, the American people would have an opportunity of learning the genuine quality of this individual who's going to be president of the United States. So we think it's a good idea.
MARTIN: To drill down, so…
Prof. KALB: A number of the candidates, by the way, Michel, do think it's a good idea as well.
MARTIN: Macarena, in Texas how - do you have a sense of whether your readers are paying attention now? Because, of course, you know, up here in Washington, you know, this is what we do for entertainment, right? We get our popcorn and sit around and watch these debates. Do you think your readers are paying attention at this stage?
Ms. HERNANDEZ: You know, I think that the typical readers and typical viewers -I think that the presidential election seems so far away and that the lineup can possibly change. And so I don't think people are as attuned to the conversations right now as people like us are in the business.
Prof. KALB: Sure.
MARTIN: Okay. All right. Thanks, Macarena. Macarena Hernandez is a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. She spoke to us from a studio in Dallas. Macarena, thanks for joining.
Ms. HERNANDEZ: Thank you.
MARTIN: And Marvin Kalb is a fellow at Harvard Shorenstein Center on the press politics and public policy. He joined us by phone from his home in Maryland. Marvin Kalb, thank you so much for joining us.
Prof. KALB: My pleasure.
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MARTIN: Coming up: David Letterman, Jay Leno, Kwaku Sintim-Misa?
Mr. KWAKU SINTIM-MISA (Host, "Thank God It's Friday): But I try to push the limits and - which is quite new in Ghana, you know, picking on politicians, picking on the president, picking on minister of states and making fun of them, you know, either by lampooning them, spoofing them. And it's become a very popular show.
MARTIN: Ghana's king of talk is our anchor buddy today. That's coming up.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues - TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
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