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San Diego Union-Tribune

Monday, August 9, 2004

War and the economy, and so much else. Serious issues for serious times.

They beg for serious debate by the candidates who would be the next president. But will Americans - indeed, the world - get serious debates this fall? Lamentably, that remains an open question.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored all presidential debates since 1988, has again tentatively organized debates for this year. Three presidential debates are scheduled for late September, early and mid-October, with a vice presidential debate in early October.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign has accepted the commission's schedule, but detailed talks with the Kerry-Edwards and Bush-Cheney camps won't even begin until after the Republican National Convention Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in New York City.

Meanwhile, an upstart organization, the Citizens' Debate Commission, has set itself up as a rival to the CPD and has proposed its own series of six debates in September and October. This new group has been highly critical of the old commission, calling it "a shell organization" of the Republican and Democratic parties and alleging that the parties control the debate schedule and format to the exclusion of legitimate third-party candidates. The result, the new group says, "is a series of scripted affairs at which the candidates rarely engage in anything close to a debate." Public viewership of the debates has dropped dramatically, they add, from 60 percent of households in 1980 to just 30 percent in 2000.

Some of that is true. The debates have become increasingly scripted. The candidates have not been challenged with follow-up questions. Viewers have been cheated out of a chance to see how the candidates might challenge and interact with each other in a real debate. And public viewership has declined, though by how much is hard to tell, because of the fragmentation of television into many more channels on cable.

What the new commission fails to recognize is that it, too, could easily fall victim to candidates' demands for bland, politically safe debates that do little to help voters judge the candidates and their ideas. There is no law requiring debates; the candidates are in control, no matter who the sponsor.

Another reality is that most of the differences between what the old commission and the new commission want to do are just so much inside baseball. Aside from the number of debates, three vs. five, the only significant difference is in how the two groups would determine which candidates are allowed to participate. Both groups would require that all candidates appear on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of an Electoral College majority. The old commission would also require a candidate to have at least 15 percent public support in five national polls - likely meaning no Ralph Nader - while the new group would require a candidate to have only 5 percent support - giving Nader a shot at participation.

The good news is that there will almost certainly be at least one presidential debate this fall and hopefully more. The public demands it.

The public also needs to demand, and the candidates need to accept, that in this, the first post-9/11 election, the stakes are too great to allow pablum as debate.