The ABCs of the Democrat debate

By Dan Streib

Some important media personalities and many progressives have been attacking ABC’s George Stephanopoulos these past two days.


How could Stephanopoulos’ performance be controversial? He merely asked aggressive questions that merited response.

According to progressives, his questions about Obama’s friendship with William Ayers were taken right from Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Yawn.

Stephanopoulos claims that he was working on the story all along, even before his appearance on Hannity’s radio show. But even if he hadn’t, since when is it illegal for a liberal journalist to get ideas from a conservative one?

The only claim of any importance brought against Stephanopoulos and his co-moderator Charles Gibson was the one that faulted them for “gotcha” questions. Washington Post television analyst Tom Shales subscribes to this line of thought and termed the moderators’ performance “shoddy” and “despicable.” Double yawn. Those terms more accurately describe Mr. Shales’ misunderstanding of the real problem in last night’s debate.

It’s the politicians! They are the ones to blame. In each of the previous 17 nationally televised debates, neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Obama ever fully engaged the other in constructive debate. More often than not, the debates were popularity contests. What else is a “This Week” host supposed to ask?

Any reasonable person would look at the debates so far and say, “Alright, these people have been asked substantive questions. The only other way I can try to help the viewer further differentiate between these two candidates is to finally ask the dirty questions that haven’t been brought up in a debate format yet.” If Mr. Stephanopoulos went through some similar thought process, I say props to him!

But actually, this whole pro-Stephanopoulos argument is flawed unless the premise it rests upon is addressed. That premise is the idea that Hillary and Barack have not been engaging in constructive debate. And what is “constructive” debate anyway?

Many people debate to persuade or because they feel that the other person needs to share their beliefs. The second reason is self-evidently arrogant, and the first is foolish.

It’s foolish because no one can physically enter into another’s brain and change the other’s thoughts, views and values. What many call persuasion is not persuasion at all.

In truth, nobody ever convinces anyone else. When persuasion occurs, the “persuaded” individual merely convinces his own brain that the other was right. The acceptance of a “persuader’s” argument is done entirely by the persuaded.

Whatever then do we debate for? Is it merely for the strong minded to triumph over the weak? Hardly. Those who view debate this way misunderstand the capacity of their fellow human beings to reason. Aggressive personalities of this sort deserve no respect.

Ideal debate consists of a testing of arguments. One person, having thought of an important point will state it to another to see if it merits approval. The other, if in disagreement, will make a counterpoint.

If one argument comes out unscathed, it will survive in the mind of its maker. And yet, there is not a person among us who has not harbored doubt surviving a confrontation with a better stated point.

“Maybe my understanding of my own point was inadequate,” such a person might ask. And that’s totally legitimate. When one can’t immediately give a full expression of a counter argument, then that unexpressed point has not been tested.

In televised debates, discussion serves the same purpose, except the candidates aren’t testing their points for the benefit of the other. They are submitting their points to a test from the viewer.

So think about it, has Obama or Clinton ever made a point that met your standards of testing? Think hard. Have they ever come across a truly deep and striking point in the middle of a debate that it would take you a day of thought to refute? If yes, then maybe my analysis is wrong.

But if this is not the case, then these candidates are not engaging in truly substantive debate – and Stephanopoulos’ questioning is more than vindicated.

Dan is a sophomore in political science who hopes the Cardinals can keep up their good start.