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Debates Are No Face-Off

Candidates merely answer questions in carefully scripted sessions

Detroit Free Press
Ron DzwonkowskiI
Sunday, September 26, 2004

President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry aren't really going to debate three times during the next month or so. They are going to share a stage for 90 minutes and answer questions before a national television audience.

This is certainly better than not meeting at all. But it won't be a real debate, with rebuttal and counter-rebuttal. There won't be any follow-up questioning from the moderators to press a point or seek clarification, and the candidates won't get to ask each other anything. In fact, they are expressly forbidden from addressing each other, particularly with proposed pledges.

So, Bush cannot say, "Let me ask you right now, Sen. Kerry, if I call off the Swift Boat Vets, will you pledge to never again mention your Vietnam service?" And Kerry cannot say, "Mr. President, I ask you, if I call off Dan Rather, will you pledge to never again mention your Alabama National Guard service?"

The memorandum of understanding between the campaigns for the debates runs 32 pages and covers all sorts of things, including an agreement that neither candidate will stray from behind his podium. It does not say what would happen if one of them did. Perhaps he could be penalized electoral votes -- North Dakota (3) for first violation, Missouri (11) for a second, etc. Maybe the Secret Service would just tackle the offender.

Don't expect anything so dramatic. These debates are so structured that the only tension points occur as viewers wonder how long past the chime the candidate will talk before the moderator gets up the nerve to try to stop him.

Now, again, understanding that any sort of presidential debate is more worth having than not, here's the problem: These events are controlled by the two major political parties, whose object is to give their candidate maximum exposure at minimal risk. So it has been since 1988, when a bipartisan commission was formed to take control of the process from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.

The official sounding Commission on Presidential Debates is actually a nonprofit corporation set up by Republican and Democratic operatives in one of their few moments of agreement. It protects the parties' positions in the political process by letting them decide the number and format of debates and whether any minor-party or independent candidates will be included. This year, none will be.

Representatives of the campaigns negotiate the debate formats with a view toward what will make their candidate look best; there is no public or apolitical input to the process. It's all backstage stuff, aimed at letting each party's candidate shine when the lights come up.

Now the old process was not always smooth. Back when the League of Women Voters sponsored these events, it was often more of a referee. The league was cut out of the process after the 1984 debates, when the Reagan and Mondale campaigns between them rejected 60 proposed moderators before agreeing that Bill Moyers could preside over a panel of journalists. But the league, at least had no interest in making a candidate look good, only in helping voters make an informed choice. Thus there were provisions for follow-up questions and rebuttal, too, which makes candidate handlers uncomfortable these days.

Amazing isn't it? We expect these guys to make split-second decisions that could affect the future of the world, and in their big audition for the job, their managers try to keep everything as scripted as possible, including the issues to be covered.

The world, folks, is not a scripted place. We sure as the hell of 9/11 know that by now. The voters would be better served by watching the candidates get into a little more of a verbal free for all.

The commission sets the subject matter for each debate, too. Interestingly, according to an analysis of the less-than-memorable 2000 events, such potentially hot-button issues as free trade, immigration, gun control and fighting drug abuse were never mentioned, but Social Security worked its way into the rhetoric 67 times. That's according to the Citizens Debate Commission, a nonprofit group that is trying to put the debates back in more populist, less political hands.

The Presidential Debate Commission also chooses the moderators, with assent of the campaigns, and obviously, neither candidate is going to agree to an aggressive, inquisitor type, nor a large enough personality to overshadow the stars. So that leaves the likes of Jim Lehrer, certainly a smart, seasoned and well-respected journalist from PBS, but not the type to demand exact answers to hard questions. The candidates are comfortable with him.

And there's the problem. Wouldn't it be more in the public interest to have a moderator who made Bush and Kerry a little uncomfortable?