When used as a noun, the word debate means, 'A discussion involving opposing points of view.' Using such a definition, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are engaging in something other than debate.
The Democrats agree that President Bush is a lousy president, the war is lost, higher taxes are good and whoever is talking would make the better president. The Republicans, who rarely mention the president, agree that Hillary Clinton would be a bad president and each could fight terrorists better than any Democrat, except for Ron Paul who doesn't want to fight anyone.
These things resemble the game show 'Jeopardy': 'I'll have poll-tested answers for $200, Alex.' If all the candidates were better looking, younger and female, we could call them beauty contests. Miss Congeniality might say: 'My one goal in life is world peace.'
These nondebates resemble a cattle auction, except that the cattle want to buy us, or at least our votes. They seem to be saying, 'How much can I sell you on the idea that I will be the best of the stock you see parading before you? How much do you believe the bull I'm telling Wolf, Tim, Chris Matthews, Brian, Campbell, John, Wendell, Carl, Chris Wallace and Brit?'
Why can't more voters ask questions? Why must we hear these candidates who want the power to tax our income and send our daughters and sons off to war (or not) filtered through journalists, who have their own agendas?
Maybe it's a poker game: 'I raise my opponents' promise with two promises of my own.' Then my opponent thinks I'm bluffing, calls my bet and raises me with two more promises.
In none of these game shows/auctions/poker games have I heard a Republican or Democratic presidential candidate talk about my responsibilities in this uniquely privileged land. President John F. Kennedy, who was taken from us 44 years ago this week, famously said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' In this self-centered generation that precept might be modified to 'ask what you can do for yourself and stop asking politicians and government to do it for you.'
Where are the orators who will lead us away from our fixation on pleasure and prosperity and back to an ethic well understood by previous generations; an ethic of responsibility and accountability? America, always a dream in search of the ideal, has been transformed from a 'can-do on my own' to a 'can't do without government' culture of victims; a giant government ATM that dispenses redistributed goodies to all-comers.
America is a country that offers opportunity, not guaranteed outcomes, because not everyone has the same abilities, intelligence, drive or interests. Life isn't about acquiring larger homes, possessing more things and ever-expanding government. It is (or used to be) about building character and being content with what you have.
The poorest American is richer in temporal things, political freedom and opportunity than the poor of most other nations. Most of our needs are met. But in our consumer culture, driven by sophisticated marketing techniques, our wants can never be sufficiently satisfied to bring contentment. Why don't any of the candidates talk this way?
Who among the presidential candidates would dare say: 'I can't force you to get married, stay married and be more than a biological father or mother; I lack the power to make you stay in school, or work hard in order to succeed; I can't require you to obey the law and a higher moral ethic that will not only benefit you, but promote the general welfare. Stop whining and go out and make a life for yourself.'
The debate format should be changed. Put two at a time in a room, with a moderator who introduces them and leaves. Let them talk to each other and to us for an hour. They can take calls if they like. The televised conversation would have more credibility than the sound bytes cross-dressing as real debate.
Is this any way to consider who should be president? If you say yes, then you might be auctioning our future or playing a high-stakes poker game with a bad hand that could put the nation in double jeopardy.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at email@example.com.