THE DEBATE ON HOW to improve elections starts with the debates. You can modernize all the voting machines you want, computerize the precincts, and ask the networks all you want about not projecting winners until all 50 states are in.
But it may matter little if the people who go into the voting booth are a formless mass, treated more like Pavlov's dogs than independent thinkers. ZZZZIT! Tax cut! Republicans jump! ZZZZIT! Gun control! Democrats leap! Now that we saw how the formless mass created a gelatinous election, the nation knows that political Jell-O is no small problem.
That means changing the debates. This year they were such a scattershot scramble to jam all the issues into 90 minutes that it was like watching political Nickelodeon. That figures in a nation that has dumbed down its children to a point where the maximum attention span is three seconds per scene.
The second debate was particularly ridiculous, seemingly frozen on foreign policy, then zipping with all the depth of Bart Simpson into domestic policy. You cannot have 90 minutes that go from the Middle East and the Balkans to gay rights and affirmative action without shortchanging just about everything.
On one hand, moderator Jim Lehrer had to leave foreign policy before it could be asked of the candidates how they would be peacemakers when America is the world's leading seller of arms. On the other, some women I know still fume over the lack of probing over abortion.
Lehrer cut off the debate on affirmative action before George W. Bush could be forced to say definitively that he was against it. Despite the fact that we have 2 million Americans behind bars - 10 times more than 30 years ago - criminal justice and the channeling of black and brown men into jail was not addressed.
There were references to the Arctic Wildlife Refuge but no grand vision about the environment. Bush made the ludicrous claim that we need more studies before we could confirm global warming. But since this was political Nickelodeon, we had to move on to the next topic instead of Lehrer asking Bush, Mr. Standardized Test, what he has against science, or asking Gore if he ever criticized Occidental, a company in which his family holds stock.
Even education, touted by both candidates as the top domestic issue, never got past the Bush vouchers that will help few children, Gore's college tuition tax credits that are far lower than he suggests, and that little girl's desk.
We can have a probing set of 90-minute debates without three-second scenes. The next time there should be one debate solely on foreign policy. That way we can have a serious discussion not just on the Middle East or the Balkans but find out a little more why George W. Bush thinks so little of Africa or why Gore thought it was fine for his White House to sign trade agreements with sweatshop Asian countries.
We could have one about the economy. Had that been the case in this election, Bush would have run out of gas on his tax cuts and Gore would have to find some other villain than the wealthiest 1 percent. Why, they might even be forced to discuss the gap between rich and poor.
We could have one on social issues. The candidates should lay out their visions for the Supreme Court. (We now know the vision of the court.) Given Bush's and Gore's praise of Jesus, we needed to hear more about the church-state relationship. Women want to hear not just about abortion but about careers. We should have heard the candidates more on guns, discrimination, criminal justice, and the environment.
The final one would focus on the one or two most important issues of the day. At the moment, that would arguably be education and health care. Let's see if our Ivy-trained politicians have thought more about education than just standardized tests. Let's have them talk not in shorthand about prescription drugs but in depth about how they would tame the costs of hospitals, insurance companies, and drug companies.
This would be radical for Nickelodeon America. God forbid (and certainly the candidates would want to) that candidates might have to tussle over issues in depth. Perish the thought that they be asked whether they have any thoughts behind their slogans. Such debates might leaves us with many fewer undecided voters. We might have avoided sending America into the voting booth as the formless mass that for five weeks reduced the world's beacon of democracy to Jell-O.
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