This week the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the locations for the three candidate match-ups next fall: Oxford, Mississippi, Nashville, and Hempstead, New York. Louisiana elected officials and New Orleanians immediately decried the Crescent City’s absence from the list of three. Senator Mary Landrieu noted in a Times-Picayune article that New Orleans was the only city of the sixteen applicants to have bipartisan support among the candidates, including Democratic Senators Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, and Obama—and Republican Senators Brownback (now out of the running) and McCain. Opponents of the decision cite the need to continue shining a national spotlight on the city’s struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Implications of avoiding New Orleans in order to shield Republicans from tough questions have also surfaced, considering that the Commission’s co-chairman, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. is the former Director of the Republican National Committee.
The dust-up points to the question of whether Presidential debates should be located in abstractly “representative” American geographies, or if they should take place in symbolic locations—symbolic that is of the major challenges facing the nation, challenges that are overwhelmingly urban in character. If that were the case, then clearly Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New Orleans would be the best picks for 2008.
California has lost more of its citizens to the Iraq War and aftermath than any state, and L.A. as it’s largest metro region might make the perfect place to see the face of the war’s toll on U.S. soldiers and their families. Philadelphia suffers from the highest murder rate in the country, and would be the ideal location to talk about gangs, drugs, guns, post-industrial urban economics, and the failures of public education. New Orleans brings it all together, the ideal urban host to a conversation that would include questions about environmental degradation, energy independence, global warming, poverty, race, crime, and of course disaster and emergency preparedness, with a full airing of the Katrina saga.
Do Oxford, Nashville, and Long Island face challenges, too? You bet, but somehow to me they lack the grit necessary to demand that the politicians and the political media connect the real world out there to the safe world on stage and inside the television.
Would the moderators even address these issues, were they to find themselves on stage at Tulane or UCLA? Hard to say, considering that last month’s Democratic primary debate in Philadelphia at Drexel University yielded not a SINGLE question about the city just outside of the auditorium. Perhaps cities that are feeling left out of the national discussion on such pressing issues as Dennis Kucinich’s UFO encounter or Ron Paul’s wish to shut down the IRS should host their own phantom debates, independent of the debate Commission, discussing issues that matter to urban voters, and see which candidates show up.