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Political Reality ... The Next 10 Words

By David Rabinowe, Esq.

As most of us in the political world know, Martin Sheen played Josiah Bartlet, the President of the United States on the television series "The West Wing".

In season four, President Bartlet ran for re-election. That election was decided by Bartlet making a simple request of his opponent during their debate.

For those of you not “West Wing” viewers, let me set the scene. In the midst of the big debate, President Bartlet's opponent, Governor Robert Ritchie, played by James Brolin, was asked about his tax policy, to which he responded: "We need to cut taxes for one reason - the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does."

"President Bartlett's response was the election’s tipping point: He asked him for his "next ten words”.

"That's the ten word answer my staff's been looking for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They're the tip of the sword. Here's my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I'll drop out of the race right now…”

Over time, politicians have perfected ten word answers, sound bites perfect for the nightly television newscast or a newspaper headline. Overused and often misunderstood, I think presidential politics needs to re-examine the use of the ten word answer.

Unfortunately, as the 2008 election heats up, the electorate can expect to hear many more ten word answers from candidates on both sides of the aisle. But this was not always the case.
If you analyzed the transcript from the first 1960 Kennedy - Nixon debate, there were only ten questions asked of the two candidates.

By contrast in the recent CNN/You-Tube Democratic primary debate there were more then 40 questions posed to nine candidates over two hours.

Let’s do some Math: 40 questions in 120 minutes allowed for an average of three minutes per video question and answer. Subtract thirty seconds for each question and that leaves 2.5 minutes for nine candidates to answer the question. That’s an average of about 17 seconds for each candidate. 17 seconds!

Quite honestly, I am not sure that a candidate who is able to answer a question about tax policy, international relations, economics, Iraq, or any other major issue of today in less time then it takes to toast a bagel is deserving of any votes.

So, rather than hold multiple repetitive forums where nothing really gets said or done, how about demanding a real debate. Put the candidates in a room and let them ask questions of each other. No moderator. No live audience. No podiums. Just a table, a few chairs, and a camera.

Let them ask or answer any question, any way they want. Let us see who emerges as the leader of the group. Who remains civil and who blows their top. Who engages and who fades into the background.

Let’s have a forum where we, the electorate, learn something about the candidates, their positions, and how their minds really work. Now that would be truly interesting reality TV.
After all, for any Presidential candidate, the campaign is a job interview - and we, the electorate, are the hiring committee. Shouldn't we require more than sound bytes from the people asking to be our leaders? Shouldn't we get to see them in action before giving them the key to the oval office?

In short, isn't it a sad commentary that we are able to learn more practical information about the candidates for an apprenticeship with Donald Trump than we learn about any of the candidates for President?

President Bartlet was right. Ten word answers ARE the tip of the sword. And that makes them dangerous. They allow for governance by slogan - and they can kill a candidacy. “Read my lips, no new taxes” or “I voted for the bill before I voted against it” are just a few recent examples that come to mind.

They allow for presidential elections to be decided by phrases like “It’s the economy, stupid” or “compassionate conservative”. Ten word answers polarize, divide, and ultimately tell us very little.

But that is not all ten word answers do. They are also a shield. They allow for a candidate to revise and extend their remarks when necessary. They leave a candidate a way out, an opportunity for their mistake to be fixed by a deft campaign spokesperson. If there is a problem with one of their ten word answers, campaigns can use the very nuance they so carefully avoided to re-shape the narrative. It is this trait of the “ten word answer” that makes them so valuable.

More and more, today’s campaigns like to be scripted. Campaigns do not like surprises. That is why today’s campaigns are characterized by candidates spending more and more time saying the same things in front of the same people. By contrast, candidates spend less and less time using the campaign trail to hone the very skill-set needed to lead a country that is way too big for ten words.

Perhaps it’s time for us to require more than ten word answers from our candidates for the highest office in the land – and if they can't, or won’t give us their next ten words, we should know that too.

David Rabinowe is an attorney and political consultant based in New York.
He can be reached by e-mail:
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