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Can Paul Ryan educate voters about Medicare reform?

Paul Ryan and his Republican supporters see the presidential election as a chance to educate voters about Medicare reform. Some claim that campaigns are not for educating, but for winning. That's only partially true. Campaigns still have great teaching value.

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Campaigns usually mix the policy information with chunks of distortion and personal invective – but that doesn’t make the information any less useful. In one race for the Senate, the incumbent hinted that his opponent was both a drinker and a traitor, and accused him of favoring a “war of extermination.” The contest, in 1858, was between incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas and challenger Abraham Lincoln. Notwithstanding the trash talk, their speeches and debates contained so much substance that we still study them.

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True, the televised Obama-Romney debates in October will not be of that caliber. Each of the Lincoln-Douglas debates consisted of a 60-minute opening statement by one candidate, a 90-minute reply by the other, and a 30-minute rejoinder by the first. The candidates could marshal their evidence at a level of detail that would be far beyond today’s debate formats, which keep candidates from speaking for more than a few minutes at a time.

Even so, the debates will still provide viewers with glimpses of what the two sides intend to do. Ninety seconds should be enough time to explain whether a tax increase is necessary, and if so, who should bear it.

Whereas debates provide mini-lessons on political issues, the Internet supplies long-form courses. Campaigns, advocacy groups, and news organizations provide Americans with more access to more kinds of material – videos, speech texts, position papers – than was ever before possible in history. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found, about three-fourths of adult Internet users went online to get news or information about the midterm elections, or to take part in the campaigns.

Americans are not just passively absorbing political education: Many of them deserve decent grades for class participation. Among users of social networking sites, 37 percent post political material at least occasionally.

After losing the presidency to Dwight Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson spoke with a supporter who told him that his campaign had educated the people. Stevenson replied: “But a lot of people flunked the course.” In November, partisans will come to different conclusions as to whether voters have passed the 2012 version. But one thing is clear: Course materials are abundant.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."

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