Agenda-setting theory, in a nutshell, is this — the media can’t control what you say, but it can control what you talk about. Debates are agenda-setting writ large. For 90 minutes, a very few people decide what topics the candidates will talk about in front of millions of viewers. There is great power in that. So, given the electorate’s justifiable concern with economic issues and the media’s understandable if not laudable preoccupation with the race’s day-to-day blow-by-blow, I find it heartening that two consecutive debates have had questions about genocide in Darfur. Framing the discussion around US military intervention surely gives short shrift to the nuanced approach Darfur demands, but forcing the candidates to talk about this issue that isn’t at the top of The National Agenda seems to me like a self-evident good. If nothing else, it builds a bridge from the activist community to the public at large and helps us keep Darfur from slipping off of the national radar.
Tonight’s “town hall” presidential debate comes at a moment of high acrimony in the campaign. Speaking for myself, a few weeks ago I thought surely, surely, we’d seen the worst, but it was just a foretaste of the feast to come.
So it’s a particular relief that tonight’s questions will come mostly from audience members who do something other than gossip about the presidential campaign for a living. Since the pre-primary debates, time and again we’ve seen better questions from audiences than moderators or pundits. (With obvious exceptions, of course.)
Granted, the network gets to choose who asks the questions, and followups aren’t allowed, but it’s still likely to be a different universe of questions than we’d get from a pundit-only panel. I doubt any faith leaders will get airtime, but a person can hope. I’m picturing clergy in garb stepping up with a call for repentance for false witness. Won’t happen, but it’s fun to indulge the fantasy for a minute.
I can’t promise a full-fledged liveblog, but I’ll at least have some post-debate comment.
Kudos to Gwen Ifill for asking questions about Darfur and climate change at last night’s debate. Darfur in particular was a pleasant surprise. It’s very easy to let the genocide fade from the campaign as it falls out of the news and economic anxiety mounts, so putting it on the agenda for a nationally televised debate was an important and deliberate decision. Notice the streaming line graph at the bottom of the screen gauging approval ratings among undecided voters — they respond overwhelmingly to the call for action to stop the slaughter.
Next week, let’s have some questions about climate change as a moral issue. The policy questions are most important, but these debates are also a teachable moment for the American public about climate change’s catastrophic, disproportionate impact on the world’s most vulnerable people.
Over at his Boston Globe blog, Articles of Faith, Michael Paulson notes that Friday night’s presidential debate at Ole Miss, which centered on the economy and foreign policy, “was completely free of talk about religion — a marked shift in language choice from the words used by both candidates during their acceptance speeches at their party political conventions,” despite the fact that issues with strong religious underpinnings such as Iran, Israel and terrorism.
Paulson’s observations come at a time when people of faith are increasingly expressing that the economy and the way our country handles its business overseas fall under the category of moral or “values” issues.
While the candidates certainly don’t have to invoke the name or language of any faith to recognize an issue’s gravity, it will be interesting to see how these topics are framed going forward. Will they dialogue with voters (and each other) about the inherent moral and spiritual ramifications of our nation’s actions, or will rhetoric be devoid of these dimensions?
Reporting and commentary on Sarah Palin’s nomination suggests a great deal of uncertainty about what evangelicals and socially conservative voters will do on Nov. 4.
On the one hand, James Dobson and Tony Perkins say she is an extemely reassuring and exciting addition to the Republican ticket, and David Brody thinks tapping her was an effective, game-changing move:
For the most part, social conservatives and the Evangelical base are now about to come fully on board…Anytime you have motivated Evangelicals behind you it means your candidate is in a good spot. Watch for pro-family organizations and the McCain team to now start working together to get out the vote. This CAN NOT be emphasized enough.
But Eric Gorski’s first report from the Republican National Convention provides a counterpoint — evangelical voters there haven’t received the memo:
At Eagle Brook Church, Minnesota’s largest evangelical Christian congregation, there was zero talk of politics on the eve of the Republican National Convention. Church pastors politely declined an invitation to a GOP prayer breakfast this week…
Conservative Christian activists on hand for the GOP convention in nearby St. Paul are suddenly energized about McCain’s campaign, thanks to the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the ticket, McCain’s recent performance at megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s candidate forum and the party’s new, tougher platform on abortion and gay marriage.
The looming challenge for Republicans is building the same enthusiasm in “values voters” that fill evangelical churches each week.
Nor is there evangelical consensus at the national level. As reported by Suzanne Sataline in the Wall Street Journal, Rich Cizik’s take sounds more tuned in to the facts on the ground:
“I like some of the personal choices she’s made, such as carrying a Downs child to term,” Cizik said, referring the governor’s infant son who has Down Syndrome. “So will millions of evangelicals.” But he said he and other evangelicals need more information about Palin’s views on the environment and global affairs. “I don’t think evangelicals are going to vote for this team for superficial partisan reasons. I think lots of people are looking beyond labels this time around.”
Conservative evangelical biographer Stephen Mansfield, who wrote books on both Bush and Obama’s faith, takes it a step further:
What is certain is that there were better choices. In an election largely about judgment, McCain may have just made another mis-step.
So it looks like there’s nothing approaching consensus about Sarah Palin in socially conservative or centrist evangelical circles.
The plot thickens…