Debates as Truth-Telling

Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate, even though regarded by commentator George Will as forgettable as the Peloponnesian War, was notable for at least this: The two men hurled statistics at each other like darts, more so than the first debate between President Bush and John Kerry.

Such stat-throwing underscores this presidential campaign theme of competing for truth while knocking the other guy's claims. This spin vs. spin has voters spinning in a sea of repetitious soundbites. A poll taken last week by Reuters/DecisionQuest showed most Americans' distrust of politicians reaching an "epidemic level." Perhaps the two sides will get that message soon enough.

Fortunately, some media are doing a good job of checking candidates' statements. More could follow suit. The Annenberg Public Policy Center's website, factcheck.org, is a remarkable service for confused voters, quickly posting information that corrects campaign rhetoric.

One casualty of the candidates' attacks and counterattacks is any discussion over the two camps' competing visions for the future. What kind of world does the US want to create 10 years from now? How much sacrifice are Americans willing to make for cleaner energy and better healthcare? Such important questions get lost in the barrage of brickbats.

The next two presidential debates should try to avoid a repetition of the candidates' stump speeches and re-hashed points. The debate format needs to change to allow more grilling and follow-up. Letting just one lone journalist ask questions allows too much influence for him or her to set the agenda for these election-turning events. Thankfully, the next debate is a town-hall format.

The campaign's descent into negative attacks needs to be reversed. During the Democratic primaries, Sen. John Edwards was much admired for maintaining a high tone and not running negative ads. On Tuesday night, however, both he and Vice President Dick Cheney clouded the debate with rat-a-tat-tat lists of the other guy's alleged past wrongdoings.

While that may rally each party's faithful, it does little to persuade fence-sitting voters which party can better lead the nation.

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