NO WAY TO RUN A PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE
The first of the three presidential debates will be held tonight, carried live on all the networks, viewed by millions, spun by surrogates and chewed over by pundits.
We comfort ourselves that during the 90-minute broadcast from the University of Miami, we'll see the candidates' true selves revealed in the hurly-burly of debate, the actual men shining through the veneer of political gloss burnished on the stump.
Regrettably, we'll be wrong. The candidates will speak in calculated, market-reasearched sound bites designed to appeal to specific demographic groups. Important topics will be ignored. Follow-up questions won't be asked. Neither candidate will directly challenge the other. In fact, neither candidate will speak to the other.
Surprises, if they happen, will come not from spontaneity, but from scriptwriters.
Tonight's debate will be a defining moment in this long, divisive campaign. Despite serious flaws in the system, it's the best opportunity Americans will have to hear directly from the candidates.
Unfortunately, those flaws have given Americans an excuse to tune out. Presidential debates have become so predictable, so facile, that 25 million fewer watched the 2000 debates than watched the 1992 go-round. At a time of increasingly rancorous public discourse, we need more Americans - not fewer - to base their votes on something other than visceral impressions of scripted candidates.
Eighteen years ago, Democrats and Republicans decided it was in their mutual self-interest to take control of the debates from the reliably apolitical League of Women Voters. Frustrated with the questions and the questioners - and, more importantly, about having to include other candidates - the parties created a system they could control, under a lofty-sounding name: the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Through the commission, the parties could: nName the participants. In 1996, as a result, Ross Perot was excluded from the debates; in 2000, Ralph Nader was left outside looking in.
*Control the questions and the format. In the Town Hall debate Oct. 8, members of the audience must submit their questions in advance, in writing, to the moderator, who will select the ones asked.
*Set the schedule. In 1996, in return for agreeing to exclude Perot, President Clinton's campaign was allowed to schedule the debates opposite that year's World Series games, to ensure that nobody watched.
All of this was spelled out in secret memos pried out of the commission by the nonprofit watchdog Open Debates, which advocates an independent panel to oversee presidential debates.
Open Debates' executive director, George Farah, interviewed Scott Reed, manager of Bob Dole's campaign, who was remarkably candid about how the system works: "In 1996, we told the commission what to do. ... Once we agreed with the Clinton team what we wanted to do on the details, we handed it to the commission and they implemented it. We told them the cities. It wasn't the cities they wanted. We told them the dates. It wasn't the dates they wanted. We told them the format. It wasn't the format they wanted. But their job was to implement it and execute it and perform it, and they did a good job."
A commission that consistently cows to pressure from candidates fosters presidential debates that serve power instead of principle and parties instead of people.
Where the League of Women Voters ensured that voters came first, the Commission on Presidential Debates dependably ensures the parties do. If the commission won't stand up for the voters, it must be replaced with a sponsor that will.