Debating the debates

Mark Partridge, writing on the Diplomatic Courier's blog, says I'm too quick to dismiss the usefulness of presidential debates

For one thing, most voters have not been able to make it out to see the candidates stump. Lacking this first hand experience, any chance to see the two duel–be it using talking points or not–is worthwhile. I would wager that the few people who would scour speeches to learn about the candidates respective positions are in the minority and are political die-hards anyway. Voters want things presented to them, and this is one of the few times when they have a nice side-by-side comparison.

Secondly, the nervousness in the U.S.–and around the world, for that matter–is palpable. The first debates have focuses on foreign policy, as well as economic policy; but the situation is so fluid, and things are very different now. Both camps have presented brand-spanking new economic plans in the past few days, and this is the perfect time to explain them to the voters. The next president will be the one managing the fallout from this financial crisis, and giving these candidates a chance to enumerate their policies could serve to calm things–in a way that the lame duck George W. Bush has not been able to. People want to know what McCain and Obama what and how they will fix things–and they want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, if you will.

Of course. The candidates' economic policies are in flux and Americans want to know how their future president plans to get the country out of the mire. But they're not going to hear it tonight. This economic crisis is so massive and complex that even the most educated voters have a hard time understanding the factors involved. I would wager that Obama's surge in the polls since the market collapsed has a lot less to do with the appeal of his economic plans than the fact that there isn't an (R) next to his name.

How could Obama or McCain possibly explain how they plan to "fix" the economy within the strict time limits and artificial structure of these debates, except in the most superficial terms? Tonight we're going to hear a lot of soothing noises from both candidates about how they plan to create jobs, regulate the banking sector, and keep taxes on the middle class low. Then we're going to hear some out-of-context quotes and votes that explain why the other candidate helped get the country into this mess. Which candidate a voter believes will mostly be determined either by who they supported coming in or who gives a slicker presentation.

As Dan Rather put it, "These aren’t debates...They are a 'something,' but they aren’t debates."


This Week in China

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Guang Niu/Getty Images

Late last week and through the weekend, the Communist Party Central Committee was locked in debate over what China's policy response to the global financial crisis should be. Premier Wen Jiabao has pledged to adopt "flexible and cautious" policies to maintain stability in China's own financial markets. He explained this approach to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday.

An editorial in the People's Daily newspaper, the party mouthpiece, shows that opinion within the party remains sharply critical of American excesses and praises the tight control the government has exercised over the economy:

The advantages are increasingly evident. Western countries are mired in low growth and the United States severe financial crisis is a manifestation of the dead end of liberalism and the destruction of the myth of American institutions.

China Investment Corporation, the country's $200 billion sovereign wealth fund, is trying to withdraw a rumored $5.4 billion investment from the Reserve Primary Fund, a U.S. money market fund that in September became the first such fund to report losses in 14 years. Meanwhile, other Chinese experts suggest that using China's vast U.S. dollar reserves to invest in U.S. companies may actually be in the interests of both countries.

American-style free markets have been the biggest experiment of the last 30 years in China and hardliners may be tempted to declare the experiment dead after witnessing the collapse of the U.S. financial system. However, financial innovation has certainly been a central component in China's tremendous growth and the country is likely to take a course similar to that of the Europeans: cautious liberalization, tempered by new regulation.

General News

At a Communist Party Central Committee plenary session on Sunday, a plan was passed to give farmers control over the state-owned land on which they farm. Party leaders hope that such a measure can boost rural productivity and income and help shield China from a downturn in the global economy. They hope to double rural disposable income by 2020.

Recent tests have turned up no new melamine cases in batches of milk powder across the country. White Rabbit candy, the famous milk-based sweets, are back on the market with new green labels to show they are melamine free.

The government of Hong Kong plans to introduce minimum wage legislation.


A senior adviser to the Communist Party Central Committee says that there will be "public democratic involvement at all government levels" by 2020. One member of the Party's Politburo echoed this in more subdued tones, promising new systems for accountability and the redress of grievances with the government.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou pledged closer ties with the mainland last Friday on the occasion of Taiwan's "National Day." He hopes to increase mail, trade, and transportation links.

Business & Economy

Higher interest rates, housing policy, and perhaps a case of post-Olympic hangover have sent the Beijing housing market into a downturn.

The completion of a merger between telecommunications firms China Netcom and China Unicom is the largest such transaction in the country's history. The $24 billion deal creates a company with 260 million subscribers that offers both wireless and fixed-line services.

Science & Environment

Scientists have completed the sequencing of the panda genome. Mysteries they hope to solve: Why do pandas eat bamboo? Why do they have black circles around their eyes? And why don't they mate more?

The government plans to build 750 hydro-electric dams across Tibet to help raise living standards.

China Moment

Wait till the McCain campaign gets their hands on this one: a sex education book in China that is being used by first graders.