CDC Logo


The Herald-Sun

Sunday, October 3, 2004

Put aside for a moment the question of who won the first presidential debate last week (John Kerry, by most accounts) and consider the format of these tightly wrapped joint appearances by the candidates. What Americans saw Thursday night was not, strictly speaking, a debate -- a better term is press conferences. The 32-page memorandum of understanding signed by the Kerry and Bush camps wiped away any hint of a real debate, and that's a shame.

The rules enforced by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) even forbade TV cameras from cutting away from a candidate who had the floor. Fortunately, the networks said flat-out they would cut away if they wished, and they did. A split screen did the trick handily.

Words are the weapons of choice in a debate, but body language comes a close second. If the networks had obeyed the CPD's directive, viewers would not have seen Kerry and Bush react to each other in non-verbal ways.

It was obvious that Bush, for example, was working up a head of steam early on as Kerry lit into the president's sins of commission and omission, especially in Iraq. Bush doesn't take criticism well. The split screen showed Bush glowering at Kerry.

But the worst feature of the current debate format lies in its prohibition against a candidate speaking directly to his opponent. That's a spontaneity killer from the get-go.

How did we get to 32 pages of rules for a 90-minute debate deliberately set for a lukewarm temperature? Blame the CPD. And behind the CPD, blame the Republican and Democratic parties, because the commission is their Frankenstein's monster.

In 1988, the George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns signed a debate contract, the progenitor of today's format, that laid down specific rules governing virtually every aspect of the candidates' joint appearance -- even the height of the podiums. This contact so infuriated the League of Women Voters, which had sponsored presidential debates for 12 years, that the organization withdrew and denounced the whole thing as a fraud.

Now the CPD has the game to itself. The result: Presidential debates have been stripped of the risk factor for candidates, who fear blowing their lines, and third-party candidates are not encouraged to apply.

Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas agreeing to a contract that would have prevented them from addressing each other in their historic series of seven debates? No, and today's Americans deserve the same kind of civil give-and-take on the great issues of our time. But we won't get it with the CPD as long as it is beholden to the parties.

The Washington-based Citizens Debate Commission advocates a go-for-broke format based on real debates instead of carefully rehearsed sound bites. What a tonic for democracy that would be compared to what we saw Thursday night, a quasi-debate designed more to stiff-arm a robust exchange of ideas than to enlighten the electorate.