You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation


Raise your hand if you find this idiotic: Wolf Blitzer lines up agroup of ten or more presidential candidates on a stage, poses somegimmicky question, and asks them to raise their hands if theyagree. That, alas, is what this year's absurd presidential debateshave been reduced to.

There's plenty to fault about the presidential nominating process:the insane length of the campaign; the banal sloganeering (ChrisDodd: "The problems are profound here and require some very stronganswers"); the influence of a few thousand Iowans over worldhistory. But, at the moment, nothing debases and cheapens theprocess more than the ludicrous "debates" that have recentlydefined the campaign.

The word "debates" belongs in quotation marks because they are nosuch thing. These events are to debating what Candyland is tochess. Take, for instance, the famous episode from last month'sRepublican debate in South Carolina, in which Rudy Giuliani pouncedon libertarian Ron Paul for suggesting that U.S. foreign policy inthe Middle East had contributed to the September 11 attacks. Thisis a relatively widespread proposition, but Giuliani, who hasfashioned himself the world's foremost expert on all things 9/11,summoned outrage at the very idea, declaring, "I don't think I'veheard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanationsfor September 11." Naturally, this became the evening's "defining"moment.

Moronic episodes like this one are what make a joke of the conceptof real debate--which entails people thinking aloud and challengingone another's ideas. What we get instead are mongrel hybridscombining the worst of press conferences (evasive answers withoutthe tough follow-ups) and campaign speeches (platitudes with nopretense at substance).

This year's debates have been doomed from the start. With so manycandidates lined up behind their podiums, any given one is lucky toeke out ten minutes of speaking time--usually in about a dozendifferent installments. That hardly allows them to coherentlyarticulate any ideas worth explaining. Instead, the best acandidate can hope for is to get off the snappiest inane soundbite(Mitt Romney's call for a "double Guantanamo," which sounds morelike a Starbucks order than an actual government policy). Effortsat substance and nuance often come out rushed and incomprehensible,as in last Tuesday's GOP debate when Tommy Thompson made it abouthalfway through his three-part plan for Iraq before Wolf Blitzerinterrupted him. (If you can't fix Iraq with two bullet points, youshouldn't be president, right?)

These days, the debates often resemble the audition round of"American Idol" where the talented and crazy alike vie for their 15minutes of fame and maybe a little profit afterward. And, thus,debate time must be found for a specimen like Mike Gravel ("Who thehell are we going to nuke? Tell me, Barack. Barack, who do you wantto nuke?"). Or Dennis Kucinich, who offers nothing he didn't say inhis previous, totally futile candidacy (except his insinuation thatinstead of assassinating Osama bin Laden, we should try certainAmerican leaders for war crimes). And maybe, before their inclusionin the next debate, Jim Gilmore and Duncan Hunter can explain justwho, exactly, has asked to hear from them? (At least Ron Pauloffers a distinctive pseudo-libertarian viewpoint. )

The media compounds the madness by rewarding candidates for utterlytrivial successes. Thus, John McCain looked like a "winner" in NewHampshire last week for walking to the stage's edge and feeling thepain of a fallen soldier's sister--never mind that McCain hadearlier refused to make clear what he thinks should happen if the"surge" fails. Or consider the moment in last month's Democraticdebate in South Carolina when the candidates were asked how theywould respond to a terrorist attack on the United States. BarackObama was given demerits by dozens of pundits when he failed toimmediately say he would begin bombing some other country--eventhough the original question had offered zero clue as to who mighthave committed such an attack. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, waswidely praised for quickly iterating the importance of using force.Perhaps the difference revealed Clinton's sharper sense of what themedia wants to hear, but surely it reveals nothing about how the twowould actually respond as president.

So what to do about this farce? How about breaking up the candidatesinto smaller groups, thereby giving everybody more time to explainhim or herself. (Yes, there are too many debates already--but atleast these would offer some quality with the quantity.)

Even more important, rather than firing a series of often vapidquestions at candidates, moderators should stick to asking broadquestions about what should be done in Iraq or with health care andthen encourage the candidates to argue among themselves about theprecise answers. This would also address the ridiculous fact that,in the Republican debate held last week, a debate "time clock"hosted at Democrat Chris Dodd's website showed the speaker whoclocked the most minutes was ... Wolf Blitzer (he was a close thirdin the Democratic debate). This is no way to choose a president.Raise your hand if you agree.

Nuevos Braceros

We support the immigration bill now before Congress because, as wehave previously argued, this compromise is the best that liberalsare likely to get. Putting off immigration reform any longer moreor less ensures that nativism will grow, making it likely thatfuture proposals will be far more draconian. Moreover, by creatinga path to citizenship for twelve million undocumented workers, thebill would accomplish an important task: integrating into Americanlife those who have lived on the margins of society for far toolong.

But our endorsement comes with a caveat, for, while the billexemplifies some of the best instincts in American democracy, italso indulges one of the worst. Our country has always been a landof immigrants, but we also have a less celebrated tradition ofimporting non-Europeans to do the difficult tasks that our owncitizens shun--harvesting cotton, building railroads, pickinggrapes. These immigrants were not welcomed as citizens. Instead,they became part of a shadowy underclass that belied the uniquepromise of American life. The guest-worker program envisioned bythe immigration bill--which would allow hundreds of thousands oflow-wage workers into the United States annually-- falls squarelywithin this unsavory tradition: the tradition of the African slaveship, the Chinese coolie, and the Mexican bracero.

To be sure, the guest-worker proposal addresses a genuine need. TheUnited States does suffer from a shortage of low-level serviceworkers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 22 of the 30occupations likely to experience the largest job growth through2014 will require only on-the-job training. These jobs includelandscaper, janitor, and home health aide--exactly the types ofpositions many Latino immigrants now take. And one could argue thata guest- worker program would merely legalize the long-standingpractice of Mexican laborers crossing the border to find work, thenreturning home with their savings.

But, if many migrants have historically gone home, many others havedecided to stay, choosing to work their way up the occupational andeducational ladder-- an opportunity the guest-worker program wouldnot provide. Under the bill, guest workers would be able to stayonly two years at a time, after which they would have to returnhome for a year. (Altogether, they would be allowed to come herefor three two-year stints, with a year in their home countriesbetween each.) Yes, the bill provides that they be paid prevailingwages. But the likely result will still be a docile workforce,fearful of being fired, with no allegiance to the United States.

And after their stay has expired? That's where the real folly ofthis proposal comes to light. Some of these workers will returnhome to be replaced by a new batch of recruits. But, invariably,many will stay in the United States illegally--replenishing theclass of undocumented workers the bill is designed to eliminate.According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 45 percent of the nation'sundocumented workers didn't get into the country by climbingthrough barbed wire but rather by overstaying their visas. Which isexactly what will happen with guest workers. A decade from now,thanks to a burgeoning population of guest workers who have avoidedgoing home, we will find ourselves having this debate all overagain and hearing yet more nativist cries for deportation. This ishardly the result sponsors of the immigration bill have in mind.And it's not an outcome Americans should accept.