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Debates Entertaining, But Will They Inform?

The Denver Post
Monday, September 27, 2004

So President Bush and John Kerry finally have settled on three debates. Let's hope, in the deal's fine print, they agreed not to talk about Vietnam, Purple Hearts, Swift Boats, the Texas National Guard or CBS.

Presidential debates are often great political theater, if not just a bit substantive. What political junkie can forget Ronald Reagan turning to President Carter in 1980 to say: "There you go again"? Or President George H.W. Bush in 1992 checking his watch, as if he were ready to go home?

And some of the vice presidential debates have been even better: Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle "you're no Jack Kennedy" in 1988.

That said, we hope the debates between Bush and Kerry - the first is set for Thursday night - are much ado about substance.

Too much of this campaign has been about the politics of personal destruction and not about the future of America.

With five weeks before Election Day, voters deserve a full airing of the issues: Health care, homeland security, Social Security, the economy, the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Presidential debates aren't exactly set up with the public interest in mind. Arrangements are quietly controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties, and so serve party interests.

George Farah is founder and executive director of an organization called Open Debates, established to advocate for a more independent process. He notes that the Commission on Presidential Debates, sponsor of the upcoming forums, is a private corporation created by the major parties. The parties seized control of the debates from the League of Women Voters in 1988, Farah says. The commission co-chairs are Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk - former heads of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee.

The commission accedes to the demands of the major-party candidates, which often means limiting town-hall forums (there's one this year) and excluding third-party candidates.

Americans deserve to see the candidates in the forum most likely to elicit information and test background, expertise and other skills. We hope that before the next presidential campaign the parties will give way in favor of a more independent process.

With the first debate almost upon us, spin doctors on both sides already are puffing up the opposite candidate in hopes of cushioning the blow if their guy comes off looking stiff or aloof or misinformed.

Kerry had a chance to sharpen his debating skills during the Democratic primaries, but he isn't a champion orator, that's for sure. Bush will arrive with his secret weapon - low expectations. If he doesn't mangle his syntax and limits his smirking, he's ahead of the game.

Maybe this year the winner will be judged on the basis of his ideas for the future - assuming that's allowable under the rules.