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The Oregonian

Monday, June 14, 2004

A new, nonpartisan organization wants to save presidential debates in the United States. We hope it succeeds.

The debates have become so empty and dull that most Americans just ignore them. The newly formed Citizens' Debate Commission argues that the two major-party political campaigns have hijacked these useful face-to-face encounters and sometimes have an interest in making them as unenlightening as possible.

Gaffes like Gerald Ford's assertion that the Soviets didn't dominate Poland, or Michael Dukakis' oddly bureaucratic response to a question on the hypothetical murder of his wife, are less likely to occur these days. This is mainly because, as the Citizens' Debate Commission suggests, debates are little more than joint news conferences. The two major candidates are allowed to offer their views in prepackaged sound bites. Follow-up questions are impossible and every single detail -- from the height of the dais to the makeup of any panel of questioners -- is negotiated down to the last nit by the two campaigns -- and only the two campaigns.

Just one example: In the 1996 Clinton-Dole race, Clinton's team managed to get two sessions scheduled opposite the Major League Baseball playoffs. As Clinton confidant George Stephanopolous said afterward: "We wanted the debates to be a nonevent."

They and others certainly succeeded at that over the years. In 1980, 60 percent of American households watched the debates. In 2000, it was 30 percent.

The CDC suggests that debate rules be independently arrived at by a nonpartisan entity -- the League of Women Voters comes to mind -- and that minor-party candidates be invited to participate if their campaigns meet some plausible viability standards.

Of course, the Commission on Presidential Debates, not the CDC, runs the system now. Its efforts are aimed at pleasing the campaigns, not the voters.

But it doesn't really matter who runs the debates as long as whoever does so is truly independent. It's clear, though, that the system needs to be changed. The interests of voters, not the candidates, parties and TV networks, should get the priority in scheduling and organizing the presidential debates.

Campaigns would resist mightily, but if the choice were joining the debate or facing a backlash, they'd eventually come along, too.