The debate about the debates

(U-WIRE) RALEIGH, N.C. — In a bold move, considering his recent double-digit deficit in recent national polls, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush rejected the debates set up by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan panel headed by former leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties. Bush then dared Gore to follow his lead.
Despite the commission’s statement that its plan is “in the best interest of the American public,” Bush offered less formal debates on NBC’s Sunday morning talk show “Meet the Press,” CNN’s late-night cable talk show “Larry King Live” and a commission-sponsored debate in St. Louis. Rather than being shown during the middle of October, the time that the commission deems to be the peak of public interest in the election, Bush’s debates would begin as early as Sept. 12.
Bush is arguing that the American people deserve to see the candidates in different formats. But that’s exactly what the commission is offering: a town-hall meeting, a conversation with a moderator and a traditional podium-style debate. The only real difference Bush’s proposal offers is limiting the number of viewers by hoarding the debate in the hands of a few specific media outlets, what the Gore campaign describes as “short-changing Americans by cutting tens of millions of people out of the debate audience.”
Bush’s need to choreograph the debates as much to his liking as possible smacks of arrogance. As president, would Bush demand that NATO and U.N. events be played out according to his rules as well? If he can’t charm Russian President Vladimir Putin or sweet talk his way through Middle East peace negotiations, will he just refuse to participate in those processes?
Bush’s dangerous move is, as described by the Gore campaign, “arrogant” and only solidifies the idea that Bush, running on a platform that hopes to bring real leadership to the White House, has forgotten the president is a public servant first and a public leader second.
While Gore has already agreed to appear with Bush on “Meet the Press” and “Larry King Live,” he has gone the extra mile in also committing himself to the commission’s plan. Bush may be trying to appear confident in his determination to have things his way but actually comes out as fearful of how damaging it would be to debate Gore with the commission’s rules.
No one has challenged the commission’s proposals since 1976, when Gerald Ford dragged out his decision, hoping for Jimmy Carter to slip up. Ford lost that election for much the same reason that Bush might now lose this one; Ford’s reluctance to engage in the political process proved, as political analyst Saul Pett wrote at the time, that “his only problem would seem to be that in three or four debates, the comparative quality of the candidates’ thinking may come through.”
Bush’s wishy-washy approach to the debates doesn’t do much to fight off the criticisms that he is both a political and intellectual lightweight.
Unfortunately, his campaign has painted itself into a corner. Bush’s campaign manager Don Evans ruled out any further discussion on the debates, saying, a la Regis Philbin, “This is our final answer.”
Bush’s multimillion-dollar campaign may end in vain when this debate situation proves that all the American public really wants is a candidate’s two cents.
— The Technician, North Carolina State University