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The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Thursday, June 24, 2004

On Aug. 21, 1858, Sen. Stephen Douglas debated Abraham Lincoln, the first of seven such encounters. These most famous debates were set up to help voters decide on their vote for president. Douglas spoke first. He talked for an hour and a half. Then he turned to Lincoln and said: "I am told that my time is out. Mr. Lincoln will now address you for an hour and a half, and I will then occupy a half hour in replying to him."

Of course times have changed -- we now live in the era of quick sound bites and MTV-length dramas. Our presidential debates reflect that compression of time -- and worse because these "educational" events are now planned for only positive candidate exposure, essentially free television time. They are designed to limit conversation and make certain voters won't learn more.

The debate rules are even written by the two presidential campaigns. A memorandum from the 1996 contest, for example, is explicit in its candidate protection. It reads: "No follow-up questions by the moderator will be permitted."

We can do better.

Candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush should sign on to the Citizen's Debate Commission initiative. This independent group would begin five debates on college campuses on Sept. 22. The proposed rules for these debates are fair -- and are designed to foster a free and open debate.

It takes only one candidate to say yes. Then we can improve the debate over how we pick a president.