WASHINGTON — In the closing week of what most political insiders thought was a terrific presidential primary campaign, Harvard University's Shorenstein Center took stock of the public's attitude toward politics. The findings were downright ugly.
Harvard found that 55 percent of the public thought the campaign was "boring," 71 percent agreed that "politics in America is generally pretty disgusting," and 87 percent agreed that "most politicians are willing to say whatever it takes to get elected."
It could be that those numbers reveal nothing more than a fashionable cynicism. As columnist Michael Kinsley observed, nowadays "it seems almost unpatriotic not to be politically alienated."
Voter turnout was up sharply in the GOP primaries, which provides some empirical basis for taking the Harvard findings with a grain of salt. But they shouldn't be dismissed. The turnout spike was largely attributable to the candidacy of the anti-pol, John McCain.
Now we're on to a general election contest between two thoroughly orthodox politicians - Al Gore and George W. Bush - who seem headed for an expensive and nasty campaign. Makes you wonder how high those Harvard numbers can go.
Which is why Gore's proposal to swear off soft money, forgo campaign ads, and conduct the campaign through a series of frequent debates deserves a better reception than it's gotten. Pundits have dismissed it as a stunt; Bush has said it would lead to "debate fatigue"; and David Letterman deadpanned, "The American public doesn't respond well to threats."
But the best hope for breaking the cycle of disgust and disbelief toward politics is to reinvent the way we wage our campaigns. Gore has located the right place to start.
Unlike ads, debates don't tie speech to money. Unlike ads, debates require accountability and reward depth. No, debates aren't free of spin. Yes, candidates in debates have a bad habit of spitting out pre-scripted lines, no matter what the question. But ask yourself: Where are you likely to get better information upon which to cast a vote - a blizzard of ads, or a series of debates? It's a no-brainer.
Some suggest Gore is pushing the proposal because he's the better debater; others say he's looking for cover from the Democratic fund-raising scandals of 1996. There's always a tactical dimension to anything a candidate does, but that doesn't disqualify candidates from having good ideas. This is a good idea. The public is already groaning from "ad fatigue" and "soft- money fatigue." Debate fatigue? We could do a lot worse.
*Paul Taylor, a former political reporter for The Washington Post, is founder and executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns in Washington, D.C.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society