Friday, July 20, 2007

Eight’s a Crowd

By GAIL COLLINS
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 21, 2007

“I don’t take this personally,” says Dennis Kucinich.

Pause.

“I take it as an assault on the democratic process itself.”

Well, just so it isn’t personal.

Kucinich — in what he said was his first interview since being hospitalized for food poisoning — was referring to The Whisper. This was a moment during a recent candidates’ forum at the N.A.A.C.P. convention. A microphone picked up John Edwards telling Hillary Clinton, sotto voce, that at some point down the line it would be nice to have debates “with a smaller group of people.”

That was so obvious it hardly needed mentioning. The presidential debates have come to resemble a police lineup with all the wrong suspects. The main action involves a moderator telling people that their 90 seconds are up. On Monday, the Democrats will be at it again on CNN — all eight of them.

The overcrowded debate platform is one of those minor, nagging irritants in American democracy that, like John Kerry, never seem to go away. The networks don’t want the responsibility of deciding who to exclude, especially since each candidate has, at some point, been elected something. They’re not like the guy in a lobster suit who used to run around New Hampshire.

The long shots say that the public has no other chance to hear their message, since the news media ignore them. (Kucinich is not actually the perfect person to make this case, having participated in 21 televised debates when he ran for president in 2004. You’d think word would have trickled down by now.)

But about The Whisper: Kucinich’s version is that it all began during the forum, when he talked (yelled, actually) about his bill on a single-payer health care plan. He claims that Edwards, who is extremely proud of his own, less sweeping proposal, felt threatened by this high-decibel truth-telling and instantly ran over to “collude” with Clinton. (“He RACED over to Hillary! The camera barely had time to catch him on the screen!”)

Edwards claims this is all a misunderstanding, that what he really meant was that he and his fellow debaters — those fine, upstanding, highly qualified and extremely serious debaters — should be randomly divided into two groups, each to be given its own 90-minute program. (Raise your hand if you would like to be responsible for watching twice as many debates as you feel guilty about missing now.) In what sounded like a case of mounting hysteria, Edwards also told ABC News that Mike Gravel, the most out-to-lunch of the group, was the candidate he’d most like to be stranded with on an island.

All things considered, this is pretty good drama for so early in the campaign. You’ve got conflicting versions of reality, alienated friends, secret tapes, an island ... but Clinton’s part is a little disturbing. The tapes of the incident, which are, of course, all over YouTube, show her agreeing with Edwards enthusiastically, and following him as he walked away, saying: “Our guys should talk.” But when asked about it, she acted as if Edwards had been wandering around the stage alone, talking to himself. “I think he has some ideas about what he’d like to do,” she said.

Hillary Clinton’s campaigns are extremely disciplined. Back when she first ran for the Senate, reporters got on her bus thinking they had latched onto the dream job in political reporting. Three months later they were beginning to gnaw on trees and laugh hysterically at inappropriate moments. Nothing is ever said that is not on message, and it can sometimes make her seem like an automaton.

Right now, when her campaign is going so well that even the Pentagon is treating her like the most dangerous Democrat in town, she might take the opportunity to practice normal-person responses like: “Sure, it’s hard to have a debate with eight people.” This would not cause the voters to lose faith in her capacity to be commander-in-chief.

As to the debates, the answer is simple. The networks should just do what they always do these days: Let America Decide. After every debate, the viewers could go online and vote for who they want to see go home. Ratings will soar. You would see Chris Dodd on the cover of In Touch.

True, Internet voting is inexact and subject to manipulation. But we’re talking about a ticket to 90 minutes on CNN, not a seat on the Security Council. It’s not as if you let somebody be president without winning the popular vote.

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