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Upgrade A Poor Format

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Monday, September 20, 2004

It's no longer debatable: The presidential debates need an upgrade.

This year, the debates will be crucial. Polls suggest that the race between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry is still very tight. The debates - the first of which is scheduled for Sept. 30 - will give undecided voters an important, all-too-rare opportunity to compare the candidates side-by-side.

Not enough people have watched these televised debates in recent years. The first debate between Bush and Al Gore four years ago attracted 47 million viewers, about the same as the first Clinton-Dole debate in 1996 and a far cry from the 80 million who tuned in to see President Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980. The second Bush-Gore debate in 2000 drew 10 million fewer people than the first, and was one of the smallest audiences since TV debates began in 1960.

That is partly the fault of the debate format, which is dictated by the candidates to maximize the opportunities for superficial sound bites and to minimize the risk of meaningful give-and-take.

These staged events have become more like campaign commercials than honest-to-goodness debates. And who wants to watch that?

The debates are organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, created in 1987. While the CPD's mission is to set up a fair fight every four years, in practice the debates are controlled by the Republican and Democratic Parties. Their goals are to shut out third-party candidates and to produce events in which the candidates retain tight control over what gets asked and said.

Shutting viable, national third-party candidates out of the debates is wrong. There ought to be some mechanism, perhaps relying on a trustworthy national poll, to guarantee such a candidate's participation if he or she attains a support level of, for example, 10 or 15 percent.

Now, the Republican and Democratic Parties choose the panelists and moderators, screen some questions, and ban follow-up questions. This manipulation doesn't serve the voters well. The tight script hampers voters from learning how well the candidates can think. The format increases the likelihood that voters will form decisions based on how often a candidate rolls his eyes, rather than on his plans for saving Social Security.

Giving control of the event to a truly independent organization also would end the ability of incumbents to dictate the number of debates. To protect his lead in the polls, Bill Clinton killed a third debate in 1996. Bush has resisted a needed third debate this year.

Whatever the agreed-upon format this year, don't get fooled by the "expectations game" that campaigns so often play. Some might infer from the Bush campaign's reluctance to hold a third debate that the President somehow fears Kerry's prowess. He does not. But if people believing Kerry should "win" the debates lowers the expectations for Bush, the President is happy to let people think that. Both Bush and Kerry are skilled debaters who have bested supposedly eloquent foes in past matchups.

It's too late for this year, but the system should be changed to loosen the parties' grip on debates, and to lessen the nonsense that control encourages.