"Information, usually seen as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its by-product."
--Christopher Lasch, American historian, moralist, and social critic
In 1993 the great controversy in Congress and in the streets of America was whether the US Congress should ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In December, 1992, in one of his last presidential actions before retiring to Kennebunkport, President George H.W. Bush agreed to NAFTA with Canada and Mexico. However, before becoming law NAFTA needed to be ratified by Congress and it was contentous enough to become a dividing issue between free-traders on one side and anti-trade and protectionists on the other. While the job fell to Congress to ratify or not to ratify, the newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton supported and promoted the agreement as an ecomonic benefit to not only the US, but to Canada and Mexico as well.
But prior to sending it to the House for ratification, Clinton tacked on a few bonus clauses intended to protect American workers and allay the concerns of many House members including the requirement that Canada and Mexico adhere to some of the same environmental and workplace practices and regulations that were enforced in the US. However, the ability to enforce these clauses, especially with Mexico, was considered by many to be questionable and dubious.
To settle the controversy, or rather to settle on the facts of the controversy, the new vice president, Al Gore, and Clinton's presidential rival, Ross Perot, agreed to debate the issue and did so on November 9, 1993 on national TV.
By all accounts, Gore won the debate handily and after considerable more emotional discussion the House of Representatives narrowly approved NAFTA on November 17, 1993, by a vote of 234 to 200. This was arguably Clinton's first major presidential victory even though he claimed it with more Republican support than from his own party. One of NAFTA's primary opponents was organized labor who, as Perot famously predicted, would be the big loser when a "great sucking sound" would be heard as US jobs went south to Mexico. In any event, Clinton signed the agreement into law on December 8, 1993, and it went into effect three weeks later on January 1, 1994.
Sixteen years later we can argue whether NAFTA was a good thing or a bad thing, whether Ross Perot was vindicated in predicting US job losses, and whether Mexico has since met any of those US environmental and workplace standards. Those are all good questions but that's not why I'm writing this today.
Instead I want to suggest that we revisit the Gore-Perot debate that, for the most part, settled the NAFTA debate once and for all and led to Congress ratifying the trade agreement in relatively short order. I want to suggest that instead of dredging up NAFTA, the 2009 version of this debate should be on health care reform, the Public Option, the endangerment of the quality of care, and the cost and payment methods of the plan (perhaps soon to be redubbed the Edward M. Kennedy Health Care Plan). The screaming and yelling, the incendiary town hall forums, the outrageous lies, the persistent myths, the hair-splitting half-truths, and the political gamesmanship on both sides in trying to gauge and appease their bases has gone on long enough.
Sooner or later something actually worth debating that will come tumbling out of Congressional committees. But let's don't leave it to Congress to do it alone. Instead let's slap the darn thing on the table, each side recruit their best debater, and put them on stage together with the TV cameras humming and blinking. Let CNN and MSNBC and FOX and all the rest of them figure out who scored points here and who fell flat there, and then have them run all their fancy polls and demographics, and plaster up their newest graphics and animations, and in the end we will have a winner.
Sometime in the coming months our congresspeople will be asked to vote on the plan, but before they do the American people deserve a dignified and fact-checked debate on its details and reasonable, and reasonably supported, predictions on whether, and how, it will succeed or fail.
In retrospect, Gore and Perot were perfect for their roles in November, 1993, so it'll be challenge enough to find their 2009 counterparts. The Democrats have enough quality debaters to field a basketball team, all of whom will be shouting for the ball. The natural choices would be Joe Biden and Howard Dean, and maybe even Barack Obama himself. But my suggestion is even more dramatic than that -- it is the man who lost his own health care plan battle and who would certainly want a second crack at it: Bill Clinton. The Republicans would need to find a level-headed spokesman with a firm grip of history and politics and who has the necessary debating skills. That choice is clear: Newt Gingrich. And Gingrich is someone who would relish the spotlight and the opportunity to once again become the party's intellectual leader.
Clinton vs. Gingrich. The Battle of the Bulging Egos. Health Care. Let's go.