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St. Paul Pioneer Press

Laura Billings
Thursday, September 30, 2004

In a recent column I erroneously inferred from Arnold Schwarzenegger's address to the Republican National Convention that he had heard a debate between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon in 1968.

Readers and history books now tell me that Schwarzenegger may have heard both candidates on television, as he recalled in his speech, but whatever the forum, it was not a debate.

Neither, frankly, is the event scheduled tonight at the University of Miami between President Bush and challenger Sen. John Kerry.

In fact, I've just read the "Memorandum of Understanding" between the Bush and Kerry campaigns, guiding tonight's television appearance, and it looks like we'll be lucky if we see either candidate take an unscripted sip of water, much less an actual follow-up question.

According to the document, "no question shall be asked of a candidate by the moderator if less than six (6) minutes remain in the scheduled time of debate," "candidates shall not address each other with proposed pledges" and "candidates may not ask each other direct questions," and on and on for 32 pages.

If the 2000 debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush, in which the candidates agreed with each other on 37 percent of the questions, were, as Bush described one of them, "a great lovefest," it seems the 2004 debates are poised to become a great snoozefest.

And that's just the way the candidates like it.

"If the candidates were forced to be confrontational, if the candidates were forced to engage in spontaneous discourse, if the candidates were forced to confront issues they were uncomfortable with, they might make a mistake," George Farah recently told PBS' Bill Moyers.

Farah is the founder of Open Debates ( ), a nonpartisan group aimed at reforming the debate process. His recent book, "No Debates," makes clear that candidates do risk losing a few points in the polls when they actually say something authentic on live television. (See: Walter Mondale)

But Open Debates and a growing chorus of critics argue that it's democracy that really loses out when what passes for "debate" is not. No wonder the audience that actually bothers to tune in to the discussion shrunk by 26.2 million viewers between 1992 and 2000.

It's odd that in a culture as contentious and divided as ours, people seem to shrink from the sort of challenging verbal confrontation that was once the better part of our political system. (Or at least seemed that way in Abraham Lincoln biographies and Frank Capra films.) Now there are radio stations for right-wingers and left-wingers, with very little cross-pollination in between.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 36 percent of Americans now want the news they consume to reflect their own viewpoint on politics and other issues.

Here at home, a group of college Republicans is demanding that no public money be spent on the possible appearance of filmmaker Michael Moore at the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena.

Apparently the "liberal" in liberal arts is seen only as a pejorative political label not an invitation to sample and challenge as many ideas as possible before you make your way in the world.

Back in the day I served on my college's speakers' board, we used student funds to bring in everyone from Oprah (back before she was a billionaire) to Kurt Vonnegut, Jesse Jackson to G. Gordon Liddy.

No one complained about how his money was spent or tried to censor a speaker she didn't approve of. Instead, students showed up, listened, asked questions, asked follow-up questions, and when warranted called upon our great First Amendment tradition and heckled from the balcony.

It was thrilling. It was real. And no one was even arrested.

Fortunately, there's hope this kind of real discourse could still come back into fashion.

The idea of a Citizens Debate Commission, where candidates have to negotiate the rules with voters, not parties, has been gaining ground in grassroots groups and editorial pages.

A Zogby poll commissioned by Open Debates also finds that 57 percent of likely voters would actually like to see "other candidates" included in the debates, even if the major party candidates don't want us to. (In 2000, Ralph Nader, who was on the ballot in 43 states, wasn't even allowed to sit in the debate audience.)

There's still a chance that something unscripted could happen tonight. But if voters apply enough pressure and demand a more authentic process for picking a president, the presidential debates four years from now could actually qualify as "reality TV."