Wednesday, April 02, 2008

'Debate': campaign's most mis-used word

Perhaps the most misused word in the 2008 campaign in North Carolina is “debate.” Candidates, campaign advisers, newspapers, broadcast news departments, all seem to use the term “debate” indiscriminately to describe any setting where more than one candidate addresses an audience.
Most of them really are public forums, where candidates say what they think, respond to questions from the audience or a moderator and, at best, reply to an assertion by an opponent. But we really haven’t seen direct debates of the sort that presidential candidates more routinely engage in.
Those sometimes are confrontational – reinforcing the original meaning of the word debate “to fight.” Political debates are best when the opponents fight one another, argue over ideas, contend for voters’ allegiances and put on an informative program that tells voters how candidates react when put on the spot. Those are useful things when you’re about to pick a state or world leader.
When I suggested the other day that Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue needs to engage in a real debate with State Treasurer Richard Moore in their primary campaign for the Democratic nomination, my friend Mac McCorkle, a Perdue adviser, called to ask if I thought the current campaign between the two wasn’t contentious enough already. His point was apt: the two campaigns are fighting tooth and nail in their campaign ads. (A few days later, Perdue challenged Moore to a debate, as if there weren’t already opportunities to accept. It may occur April 22. Stay tuned for that.)
And the two did meet in what was described as the state’s first online debate on the Web site www.bluenc.com Monday night. It was an interesting project that needs some refinement but holds promise for future forums that engage the candidates more directly.
The online “debate” had both Perdue and Moore – or at least they and their campaign advisers – responding online to questions posed by bluenc.com’s moderators and by anyone who registered and signed onto the site. As my colleague Laura Leslie of WUNC public radio points out on her blog “Isaac Hunter’s Tavern,” those who watched the Web site probably didn’t learn anything that wasn’t already on the record.
And while it lacked drama and was occasionally a bit balky to follow, there was a lot of traffic -- an indication that folks are interested. I imagine the next time that things will go more smoothly and that candidates will be more nimble about answering questions and possibly posing them to one another – and contesting one another’s answers. It’s one more way that the Internet is changing political campaigns.

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