- - Thursday, August 13, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

America has always been a disputatious nation. The Founders set an early example, with differences between those favoring a stronger federal government and those holding out for personal freedom through decentralization of power.

Personal debate, robust and not necessarily polite and well-mannered, between contenders for the highest office in the land reached something of a zenith with the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. They debated issues avoided for a half-century, setting out arguments day by day that were to explode in a war between the states. Old times there are not forgotten, but such disputation is a relic now of bygone days. The first debate of the early 2016 presidential campaign was something that neither Mr. Lincoln nor Mr. Douglas would have recognized as a debate.

Instead we got something more akin to a press conference, with television performers controlling the discussion. The memorable moment was when Megyn Kelly, the dazzling princess of gotcha journalism, trapped the loudest and least prepared candidate in a particularly crude remark from his recent past.

Rising to her bait was Donald Trump, the candidate from nowhere who has fired the imagination of the Republican Party’s conservative base, so long disaffected from the party’s effete Eastern Establishment. Mr. Trump, the great entertainer who has been entertaining all over the lot, provided fodder for the commentators and pundits whose worldview is informed somewhere between the first and second items on cable-TV’s version of the news.

Instead of figuring out how to arrange the contenders in personal encounters, with one-on-one confrontations, the organizers presented a spectacle of the media making the arguments. Ms. Kelly fell into a trap herself, one of the making of the Democrats, the so-called Republican war on women, and she pulled Mr. Trump in after her. The only semblance of debate, and coming close to screaming incoherence, was when the Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul went at each other over the important issue of security versus individual rights. The moment passed quickly, and we were back to the three interrogators who were the stars of the show.

The next debate, late next month, will be presented by CNN, and it is not likely to be more informative, but it will have the familiar liberal network tone and tint. It will no doubt be different, but not an authentic debate. The sound bites coming out of it will be just as forgettable.

The Republicans should have taken a lesson from the way Candy Crowley abandoned all pretense of impartiality in 2012 and jumped in to join Barack Obama in debate against Mitt Romney. Television wants to entertain, not inform. Hillary Clinton, still the presumptive Democratic nominee, is determined to protect herself aloof from contact with unscheduled hoi polloi, and any discussion of issues. The Republican candidates are determined mostly to avoid a misstep, and the outlook is bleak for anything resembling debate as Messrs Lincoln and Douglas would recognize.

The Americans are an ingenious people who can find a way to puzzle out who will make the best president. They often do. They must make the candidates, Democrat and Republican, talk about the real issues, not least Mr. Obama’s “transformation” of America, giving the term, “imperial presidency,” an entirely new meaning. That’s the stuff of the real thing.

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