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The Seattle Times

Monday, June 14, 2004

No law says presidential candidates have to debate, and for a long time they didn't. Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower refused, and Richard Nixon tried them only once.

But Americans and the world have witnessed presidential debates every cycle since 1976. Now that they have become an institution, the debates themselves ought to be the subject of contention.

If the debates have a feel of being staged, it is because increasingly, they are. In the 1996 debates, for example, the rules said, "TV cameras shall be locked into place [and] in no case shall any television shots be taken of any member of the audience." The rules also said, "There will be no TV cut-aways to any candidate who is not responding to a question while another candidate is answering a question."

There were rules limiting follow-up questions, so that the candidates could use the old trick of answering the question they wanted to answer rather than the one asked.

The rules are also exclusive. The 1996 rules were negotiated by the Bill Clinton and Bob Dole camps, and limited participation to Clinton and Dole. Ross Perot was excluded. In 2000, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader were excluded. This year, Nader needs an average of 15 percent support in five national polls in order to be included. He is currently pegged at 7 percent by Gallup poll and 3 percent by Zogby.

Who decided the 15 percent cutoff? The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is effectively controlled by the two major parties.

There ought to be some cutoff point in voter popularity. Otherwise, George Bush and John Kerry would have to give equal network TV time to Michael Badnarik of the Libertarian Party and Walt Brown of the Socialist Party. If the debates were opened up to such candidates, there might be dozens of them.

But where to cut it off? A new group, the Citizens Debate Commission, proposes a minimum 5-percent poll standing. A more cautious choice would be 10 percent. But the 15 percent that is required now is too high.

These are tradeoffs. The problem is that choices are made that tend to make the debates appear stagy and to lock the Democratic and Republican advantage into stone. It's time to reconsider the current format and the lock on presidential debates by the two major parties