The Big Picture: The Artful Dilettante’s Take on Presidential Debates

I’ve always been a “big picture” kinda guy. I would rather read a general overview of history than a detailed analysis of the Battle of the Bulge. I would prefer reading a concise, insightful summary of human nature rather than the most in-depth study of child development. I would prefer watching a Discovery Channel program on The Big Bang than one on the solar system. For me, the Big Picture is just more fun to think about than the little stuff.
My approach to the presidential debates is no different. Our presidentiaI debates focus on specific issues like immigration reform, assault rifles, easy versus tight money, climate change, a woman’s right to choose, and transgender rights. And so presidential debates almost always bore me to tears. I’m not suggesting that these issues are neither important nor timely. Indeed they are. They are especially important to special interest groups. The responses are well-rehearsed and, of course, tailored to maximize votes and campaign donations.
So I would really relish a presidential debate on what I call “First Principles”, things like liberty, natural rights, what is mine and what is thine. I would include questions on founding principles and the role of the federal government. Why? Well, as I said, I’m a big picture kinda guy, and I believe answers to questions of one’s core philosophical beliefs tend to reveal as much about a person’s soul as his intellect. Whether we realize it or not, we all have a philosophy, a set of guiding principles upon which we act, including a little self-delusion and hypocrisy. One’s philosophy may be good or evil, rational or irrational. Both the criminal and the choir-boy have a philosophy, the village parson and the Mafia don. Nearly all of us fall somewhere in the great middle, neither sinners nor saints. We’re flawed, but not fatally so.
All of our actions, every decision we make or avoid, presupposes a personal philosophy. It is as singular and unique as our DNA or our fingerprints. It is that basket of virtues and values that defines who we are and what we are made of. Philosophy is identity; it is our lodestar. And so it goes for presidential candidates. As such, we should be focused like a laser on the candidates’ fundamental philosophy rather than canned sound bites.  For it is their philosophy, their virtues and values, their moral compass, that will guide their every decision.

So, if given the opportunity to be a presidential debate moderator, or at least prepare a list of questions for a presidential debate, what would they be?

First, a series of questions on the fundamental nature of liberty.
• Is liberty an axiomatic, transcendental pre-condition of universal happiness and justice, or just another political ideology?
• Is liberty a moral imperative?
• Is it a means or an end?
• Is liberty the province of the privileged few which allows them to exploit the less fortunate, or a universal human aspiration which allows all of us to realize our highest potential?
• Would you define liberty as freedom from want, freedom from responsibility, or freedom from compulsion?
Second, a series of questions on our nation’s founding.
• Was the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and subsequent ratification the realization of the ideals so sublimely articulated in the Declaration, or a well-orchestrated counterrevolutionary coup designed to benefit powerful special interests? Did the constitution do justice to those who paid the ultimate price during the War, or did it betray them?
• Did it advance the promises of the Enlightenment or throw them under a bus?
Finally, a series of questions to determine where the candidates stand on the fundamental role of government?
• Is the government supposed to be a “night watchman” or a “nanny?”
• Do you believe that a government which consistently exceeds its constitutional limitations forfeits any claims to legitimacy?
• Would you support a constitutional amendment giving states the right of secession by popular means?
• Would you support scrapping the constitution and reverting to the Articles of Confederation?

Sadly, there was a time when nearly every candidate for higher public office would have had little problem answering these questions to an informed and eagerly receptive citizenry.  Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams and their founding brethren would have handled these questions without having to stop to catch their breath. Our philosopher-statesmen have been replaced by shallow political hacks and spin doctors; a lifelong contemplative study of history, natural law, and the Greek and Roman Classics has been replaced by sound bites read from a teleprompter.    Today’s candidates would scarcely understand the questions let alone be able to formulate a coherent response.  I would say to them, “If you can’t answer these questions, what are you doing here?”

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