If you watched last night’s Republican presidential debate in South Carolina—and you weren’t already a committed supporter of George W. Bush or John McCain—you’d be hard pressed not to conclude that Alan Keyes won it. If, however, you missed the debate and read about it in this morning’s newspapers, you’d hardly know Keyes was there. Ignoring single-digit candidates is standard practice in political journalism, but the coverage of last night’s debate provides a particularly egregious illustration of how this practice makes a mockery of democracy.
Keyes is legendary for his rhetoric, so let’s look at the other criterion for judging who won: the substance of the arguments. Here are a few highlights of his performance.
1. Negativism. Bush and McCain go at each other for several minutes over which of them started the mudslinging in South Carolina, who threw the worst mud, and who’s still throwing it. Keyes listens for a few minutes before pointing out that the broadcast is “going out to 202 countries, and is this kind of pointless squabbling really what we want them to see? We’re talking about electing the president of the United States. … I don’t know whether this is the influence of the media corrupting our process or whether it’s that personal ambition becomes a substitute for our real focus on substance. … All I’m sitting here listening to is these two guys go on about their ads.” Later, Keyes elaborates: “It’s time we began to ask ourselves why it is that these campaigns degenerate into this kind of stuff. … It’s because [candidates] are trying so hard to be all things to all people that they refuse to stand forthrightly and make it clear on each given issue where they stand in a principled way and simply speak the truth and let the chips fall. And so they get into this spitting match over who did what to whom, as distraction from the lack of substance in their own campaigns.”
2. Campaign reform. Bush and McCain get into another argument over whose campaign-reform plan is better. Again, Keyes injects an outside-the-box perspective: “These folks sit here, two politicians, arguing about whether or not the people of the United States should have under the First Amendment the right peaceably to assemble and seek to petition the government and seek redress of their grievances. … Think about this: [Politicians are] going to control our ability to fund those processes through which we control their activities. And by controlling our funding, I presume they will utterly destroy our First Amendment right. There should be no such regulation by politicians of what we the people can do in our own political process.” Later, Keyes makes the same libertarian point on health care. While his rivals embrace the idea of a right to prescription drugs, Keyes points out that such rights often come at the expense of other rights: “You have to be very careful, because if you say that, then that means that somebody else, whether they’re paid or not, is obliged to provide that prescription drug.”
3. Bob Jones. Under fire for speaking at South Carolina’s Bob Jones University without commenting on its policy against interracial dating, Bush has argued that the speech illustrates his commitment to reach out to all voters and lead them toward a more inclusive society. McCain, meanwhile, has received credit for not speaking at Bob Jones. In the debate, Keyes challenges both men: “Does leadership consist of going into Bob Jones University, where serious questions, in fact, do exist about religious bigotry and racial bigotry—going in, taking the applause, risking nothing, because you refuse to raise the issues? That’s what G.W. Bush did. Or does it consist of getting on your high horse, refusing to go talk to good-hearted Christian people, because you believed a bunch of prejudicial slanders in the press, and then staying away—not even carrying a message of integrity to them? Or does it consist, in fact, in going in, carrying a message of truth and integrity about this country’s moral principles, and then looking them in the eye and saying, ‘I’m a black Roman Catholic Christian, married to an Indian-American woman. And if you can’t deal with the demons of racial bigotry and religious bigotry and cast them out, you’ll accomplish no good for this country’? Which is the better leader? You tell me.”
4. Abortion. Keyes argues that neither Bush nor McCain can defend the GOP’s anti-abortion position because each man is emotionally ambivalent and logically inconsistent about it. In particular, McCain has said that if his daughter were pregnant, he would leave the abortion decision ultimately to her. Keyes asks both men what they will do “when Al Gore … or Bill Bradley looks you in the eye … and says, ‘Sen. McCain, you said [that in the case of] your daughter, that would be her decision, it would be up to her to decide. How on earth can you represent a party that would take away from every other American woman what you would give to your own daughter?’ ” McCain replies, “Do not bring, please, my daughter into it. It’s a family decision.” Keyes pounces on the “family decision” excuse, pointing out that it doesn’t square with McCain’s public position: “That pro-life position applies to women who are daughters and who are wives. We had better be able to stand before the American people and justify what we stand for in applying to my daughter and your daughter and everybody’s daughter.”
5. Taxes. Bush says he would cut taxes more than McCain because he “trusts the people.” Keyes replies, “If you’re going to trust the people, then why have this debate in which you have two [politicians] arguing over how they’re going to use their gatekeeper role to determine how much of your own money you get to keep? That’s what the income tax system does to America.” Instead of income tax, Keyes argues for a national sales tax. It’s a radical idea, but unlike Bush or McCain, Keyes makes it logically consistent by insisting that sales taxes eventually be extended to the Internet. Advocates of sales taxes on the Internet “are speaking for a lot of people out there, working in the non-virtual marketplace, who are going to look at it awfully strangely that they’re operating a little store in their town and they’re going to be taxed, but somebody who goes out to the Internet, once it is established, isn’t going to be taxed. I see no grounds for it,” says Keyes. “We should treat it like any other business.”
6. Clinton-bashing. After listening to Bush and McCain quibble over which of them despises Bill Clinton more, Keyes points out that they’re embracing much of Clinton’s agenda: “The rhetoric sounds good about ending the Clinton era. …[But] I find it hard to believe one is going to end the Clinton era by continuing his policies of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the military, continuing his trade policies toward the World Trade Organization … [and] basically continuing federal domination of education. … We have folks calling themselves conservative all over the map who are just going to continue the same junk we get from the Clinton administration. What’s the point of the label?”
And what does Keyes get for this dominant performance? “Bush and McCain Collide Over Negative References,” says the New York Times headline. Keyes finally appears in the fifth paragraph—as a prop. (“With only Alan Keyes sitting between them …”) The Los Angeles Times ignores him until the seventh paragraph, which merely reports, “Former ambassador Alan Keyes, who also participated in the debate, lags in the low single digits.” In the Washington Post (“Bush and McCain Clash”), Keyes doesn’t appear until the sixth paragraph. He is briefly acknowledged as “the most voluble of the three candidates. But the focus was on Bush and McCain.”
Why is the focus on Bush and McCain? Not because they won the debate on style or on substance. Indeed, not because of anything that happened in the debate. The focus is on them because it was on them before the debate began. In short, the focus was rigged. And who controls the focus? The same people who pass off “the focus” as an objective force that dictates which candidates make the headlines and which don’t. The media.
Yes, Keyes trails badly in the polls. Yes, he has no money. Yes, many of his ideas are unconventional, to put it mildly. But on the merits and on television, it’s hard to imagine how any candidate could have beaten his competitors more soundly than Keyes did last night. In so doing, he removed any excuse reporters could have come up with for ignoring him. Unless, of course, they had already made up their minds.