Crusade seeks to focus debate

July 29, 2012


It was in 2008, the debate between vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Biden had just scored his opponent for failing to directly answer a question from moderator Gwen Ifill. But Palin was hardly apologetic. “I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear,” she snapped, “but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.”

In other words, she felt no particular obligation to answer the questions she was asked. Her obligation was to her talking points.

Not to pick on Palin. Truth is, there are few things more fully bipartisan than ducking a question. The art of making sound while saying nothing has become so ordinary and ubiquitous a part of politics as to defy notice, like wallpaper. The process takes on the flavor of twice-chewed gum, the players playing their prescribed roles in which interviewers pretend to believe they will get straight answers and politicians pretend to believe they have given them. And then TV and radio pundits spin the nothing that was said, tell us who to blame, who to scorn, who to fear, at decibel levels that would humble a jet engine.

Robert Kilmer has had enough. And he proposes a solution. Namely, a television series in which public figures debate the issues of the day under two simple rules: (1) the participants must answer questions directly and, (2) they must do so without making reference to their opponent’s argument, party or ideology.

“In other words,” says Kilmer, “you have to show up with a solution and defend it. You’re going to be asked follow-up questions. Your statements are going to be fact checked in real time and appear on the screen.” The moderator will be empowered to enforce those rules.

There’s just one problem with all that: Kilmer is not a TV producer. Never has been. Rather, he is a University of Miami-trained lawyer with a one-man practice in his native Binghamton, N.Y. He was once a lawyer for the local Democratic Committee, but “came to believe that partisanship and party labels are just stumbling blocks to getting anything done.” So he produced a version of what he calls the You Defend It Debate series on a local radio station. He’s also made a pilot for the TV version he envisions. “Rudimentary” might be the kindest description for it.

All that to say his crusade is, in a word, quixotic.

But Kilmer is undaunted. Even though he’s been pushing this for a few years without getting close to success. Kilmer is a man on a mission, driven by a simple, righteous conviction that when it comes to political discourse, the American people need — and deserve — better than they are getting.

“What I and people like me have in common — and we’re growing in number — is, we’ve been involved with political parties and that’s all well and good but at this point, we are so concerned about the level of debate in this country, the climate, that we don’t necessarily care who wins the debate anymore as much as we care about the argument itself. The most popular shows out there often involve people behaving in a way that we would not tolerate from our 10-year-olds. And yet, they are the standards. They’re No. 1.”

“Partisanship and no-compromise politics and talking-points politics,” says Kilmer, “are driving this country over a cliff.”

Kilmer says he doesn’t care about getting famous or rich. When his show was on the radio, he didn’t even seek advertisers. No, he tilts at windmills because he can’t not, because somebody’s got to do something. Call it one citizen’s rebuke of the failings of politics and media. And yes, Kilmer knows the odds are — putting it mildly — against him. Does that discourage him? He insists it does not.

“And I’ll tell you why,” he says. “Because I’m right about this.”

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


jafs 5 years, 5 months ago

Free airtime (equal) for all candidates.

A very low limit of the amount of one's own money that can be spent on campaigns.

A ban on all campaign contributions.

In depth interviews, and debates, for all candidates, required and scored by fact checking groups immediately afterwards, and the results made widely available. Including how many questions were simply unanswered.

Might be a start.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 5 months ago

"Free airtime (equal) for all candidates" - All, or just Democrats and Republicans? If it's just Democrats and Republicans, then you're institutionalizing the two party system and only those two parties. My copy of the Constitution does not include that. If you include every fringe party or better yet, every independent, better be ready for Rev. Phelps to run for high office, given all that free and equal airtime.

jafs 5 years, 5 months ago

Well, as far as I'm concerned, all serious candidates should be included.

Not sure how you'd define "serious" in such a way as to not exclude other than the major parties.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 5 months ago

The devil is always in the details.

So you want to limit how much of an individual's money they can spend. Besides the obvious problem that it's probably a violation of the First Amendment, it also prevents anyone from working from outside the current two party system. By solving one problem (a person buying an election), you've created another (you've effectively eliminated all political parties except Democrats and Republicans).

jafs 5 years, 5 months ago

Since I don't agree that spending money is equivalent to speech, I find that argument unconvincing.

And, with the granting of free airtime, you're not limiting speech.

I never said anything about limiting candidates to the two major parties.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 5 months ago

Good ideas but probably unconstitutional.

tomatogrower 5 years, 5 months ago

BAA changed the debate again. Did he even read the column beyond the first paragraph?

This guy would have a hard time getting politicians to go on, but I think it would be a great requirement for running for office. You want to run, you have to go on a show like this to debate. Then you get free air time and all the stuff jafs listed above.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 5 months ago

Palin is an easy target because she ducked most of the questions out of ignorance. Believe me, if she had something to say, she would have said it and as soon as McCain saw her ignorance, he told her to stick to the talking points her coaches pointed out. The questions asked of her, were outside that perameter. She was lost, so she changed the subject and did not answer the question.

pizzapete 5 years, 5 months ago

Exactly, Palin is the perfect example of someone who rarely directly answered the questions that were asked of her. I really like the idea of holding both parties to a higher standard when ideas important to the future of our nation are being debated. We should all be able to agree, regardless of our political leanings, that "when it comes to political discourse, the American people need — and deserve — better than they are getting."

Crazy_Larry 5 years, 5 months ago

Palin had one job to do, help the Repubs to lose the election so they could spend the next four years hounding the Dems on the declining economy...

Abdu Omar 5 years, 5 months ago

Oh, I don't think the repups wanted to lose. Mc Cain gave it his best shot, but screwed up on the VP choice. I think Romney will do the same. He will pick a person who isn't prepared and lose the election. Just wait and see.

Crazy_Larry 5 years, 5 months ago

For sure, because the economy is not through tanking yet and the repubs do not want to be at the reins as it continues to fail.

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