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Chicago Sun-Times

Monday, July 5, 2004

There was a time, though it was so long ago that we can barely remember it, when political leaders and candidates were subjected to good, hard questions. But in recent years, the parties have been so successful at squeezing any and all spontaneity out of the political process, at limiting its ebb and flow, it is taken for granted that political debates are more about style than substance.

What we need to be reminded as we anticipate another likely sampling or two of the non-debate debate, as offered by George Bush and John Kerry, is that things don't have to be this way. They weren't back when the League of Women Voters controlled the presidential debates from 1976 to 1984, and they won't be if efforts to take back the debates from the Republican and Democratic parties are successful. Through a private corporation called the Commission on Presidential Debates, the parties have been able to determine in secret negotiations everything from what questions get asked and who does the asking to what TV cameras are allowed to show and how to configure the seating of the audience. The commission also has a stake in excluding third-party and independent candidates.

If, as a voter who takes his role in electing the most important person in the land seriously, you were offended by the deadly theater staged four years ago by Bush and Al Gore, you're not alone. Former President George H.W. Bush described the debates as "too much show business and too much prompting, too much artificiality." And an independent organization called the Citizens Debate Commission is going all out to restore transparent presidential debates by wresting control from the party-dominated organization. Boasting members from all sides of the ideological spectrum, including former third-party presidential candidate John Anderson, Heritage Foundation founder Paul Weyrich and Common Cause head Chellie Pingree, the group also is calling for the debates to be widened to include third-party candidates. One need only recall the controversial exclusion of Ross Perot from the 1996 debates, even with his popular showing and millions in matching federal funds, to recognize the need for this reform.

Americans are entitled to know as much about the candidates as they can. That includes their ability to think on their feet and under pressure. At the very least, they deserve to be engaged by an exchange of ideas rather than lulled into a stupor. True, some candidates are less-natural performers than others, but there are ways to make up for that deficiency with persuasiveness. You can bet that just as a strong convention speech gives a candidate a "bounce" in the polls, a strong performance in the debates would, as well. It would also help boost voter participation and, following the troubles and controversies of the 2000 election, voter confidence.