CDC Logo


The American Prospect Online

Mark Goldberg
Friday, October 1, 2004

In the long week leading up to last night's debate, George Farah, author of No Debate and executive director of, appeared on no fewer than 11 television programs warning viewers that the debates would be little more than glorified press conferences in which both candidates would simply regurgitate their memorized talking points. To prove his point, Farah often cited the lengthy list of debate rules that were negotiated by both campaigns under the auspices of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

From the size of the paper on which the candidates can scribble notes to the height of the podiums, the 32-page “Memorandum of Understanding” outlines in excruciating detail much of the minutiae of the protocol surrounding last night's debate. To the chagrin of the networks, one set of rules even purported to regulate the kinds of camera angles that could be broadcast. To its credit, FOX News, which operated the camera pool last night, publicly refused to follow these statutes of the memorandum. (The memorandum explicitly outlawed split screens or cutaways to the candidate who is not speaking. FOX, with the other networks' support, rightly abandoned this rule.)

Of all the rules of the debates, however, perhaps none is more important -- or more easily violated -- than the stipulations that candidates cannot pose direct questions to each other. Bush and Kerry could have asked rhetorical questions with the hope that the moderator would pick up on the point and direct the opponent to answer it. Given the stifling rules of this debate, this was spontaneity's single glimmer of hope, yet neither candidate ever put Lehrer on the spot to do such a thing. In fact, the only real deviance from the rules occurred during that awkward moment in which Kerry and Bush briefly chitchatted about the Bush twins. “I'm trying to put a leash on them,” said Bush in a rather benign interruption.

Before the debate, Paul Begala appeared on Anderson Cooper's CNN program and blamed the Bush campaign for wanting such an overregulated and scripted event. He argued, quite plausibly, that the only way the Kerry campaign could persuade the Bush campaign to participate in three debates was if Kerry acquiesced to a bevy of rules that would have the effect of limiting the need for Bush to think on his feet. This may be true, but the Kerry campaign still bears some responsibility signing on to the final agreement.

No one was expecting Lincoln-Douglass redux last night, but when the only real unscripted moment between the two candidates involves banter about the president's daughters, it ought to signal the disservice done to the public interest by these intense regulations.