Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Will voters get the debates they deserve?

Boston Globe

Will voters get the debates they deserve?

By Thomas Oliphant, Globe Columnist | September 14, 2004

PRESIDENT BUSH has until Monday to decide which battleground state he wants to infuriate -- Florida, Ohio, Missouri, or Arizona.

Each of the four is a designated venue for one of the three proposed presidential and the one vice presidential debate. Months ago, when he was leading in the polls, John Kerry accepted all four invitations. But to this day, Bush has said nothing, and word is that he doesn't want to face Kerry three times. The first debate between Bush and Kerry is set for Sept. 30 in Miami. For security agencies and the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, 10 days at the outside is required to prepare for a debate; the word is required, not desired, as far as the four, swing state venues are considered. Ten days is next Monday, simple as that.

Since the debate commission was set up by the political parties to replace the ad hoc affairs run from 1976 to 1984 by the League of Women Voters, two developments have occurred. The debates, as TV productions, have managed to focus all the attention on the candidates and away from moderators and verbose reporters.

In the process, research done every four years by the commission has repeatedly illustrated a very simple point: the public by gigantic margins has come to consider the debates as their property, not the Republicans' or the Democrats'. By now, it is not an extreme view that national conventions are scripted, campaigns themselves are scripted, and what we get from the candidates is the antithesis of candor and authenticity.

But the debates are different -- up to six hours of exposure to unscripted moments that can help voters decide on their candidate. Perhaps because the stakes are so high, the campaigns are always tempted to play games with the debates. Bush's dad cost the public one debate in 1988, and Bill Clinton did the same in 1996. Four years ago and in 1992, all three presidential debates and the vice-presidential tussle came off as planned. This time, it is Bush's opportunity either to behave or to show the politician's inbred tendency to ignore the public interest. To its credit, the bipartisan commission has made it clear that it is not going to play into the political silliness by negotiating about venues and dates that have been a matter of public record for months. To be bipartisan means being willing to take partisan heat in a larger cause, and ever since 1984, co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf (Ronald Reagan's Republican national chairman), co-chairman Paul Kirk (who picked up the Democrats' pieces after Reagan's '84 landslide) and full-time boss Janet Brown (a protege of principled Republicans like Elliot Richardson and Jack Danforth) have been my favorite stand-up people in an increasingly discredited game. They have taken the heat and built the debates the public wants. Bush's negotiator will not be Karl Rove, it will be James Baker, former secretary of state and the treasury. Kerry's negotiator is super-lawyer Vernon Jordan. I have known all the players for years and offer the following roadmap for the mess that may lie immediately ahead:

In a hotly contested election, the public's interest in a full debate schedule will be served if the media, especially TV and newspapers in the four swing-state venues, is vocal.

In this hotly contested atmosphere that resembles 1992 without Ross Perot, Bush will take at least a big risk if he ducks one of those battleground state venues.

Kerry will take a big risk if he undercuts the commission and (dare I say it) flip-flops into connivance with Baker outside its auspices.

After dithering in '92 and getting hurt (remember Chicken Man?), Bush's dad did the right thing; after dithering in 2000 and getting hurt (Gore was ahead), Bush Jr. did the right thing. This time, with interest high, it would seem clear that debating is smarter than dithering. It's also in the public interest.