Debates are critical in engaging voters

Posted: Wednesday, September 06, 2000

The following editorial excerpt appeared in today's Washington Post:

Presidential campaigns are so drawn out -- and so cluttered with spin and sound bites -- that they can seem impenetrable, like some particularly vicious argument carried on evening after evening by the family next door. To break through the clutter, campaigns need big moments: Times when the usual tit-for-tat is interrupted and the candidates sum up their messages to millions of voters. The party conventions have traditionally provided such key moments, but these have attracted steadily smaller TV audiences. Now the other important category of big moment is under threat too.

This second category is the presidential debates, which stand as the brightest example of television's potential to enrich politics. In 1996, the two contests organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates attracted audiences of 46 million and 36 million; in 1992 the commission brokered three encounters, which attracted between 85 million and 97 million viewers. Precisely because so many people watched them, the debates turned the presidential campaigns into popular subjects of conversation.

Now Gov. George W. Bush wants to attend only one of the three encounters scheduled for October. To make up for the two no-shows, he offers to confront Vice President Al Gore in two other settings: On CNN's "Larry King Live," and NBC's "Meet the Press." But neither venue is a worthy substitute. On a typical night, Larry King has just under 1 million viewers; "Meet the Press" averages 4.5 million. Even assuming that a presidential encounter would boost those ratings, they fall far short of the audience that the debates can deliver. The reason is simple: The formal debates are carried on all the networks, plus CNN, PBS and C-SPAN.

Mr. Bush pleads that his formula will give voters a variety of settings in which to view the candidates. But the debates commission is ready to discuss table heights, question formats and any other issues that the Bush team wants to raise. Mr. Bush further claims that Mr. Gore is breaking a promise to meet him in his chosen venues. But Mr. Gore is not breaking that promise. He is merely insisting that Mr. Bush should not use these lesser encounters as an excuse to avoid the big ones. Mr. Bush's efforts to downgrade the debates may have consequences beyond the current election cycle. Between the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 and the Ford-Carter contests of 1976, there were three campaigns in which no debates were organized: Each time one candidate saw advantage in stalling the idea, and the absence of a neutral debates commission made this easier. Since 1976, however, there have been at least two big debates in each presidential cycle.

A healthy precedent had been established; but Mr. Bush's stance now threatens to return politics to the time when just one all-network encounter, or possibly even no encounter, is considered acceptable. A candidate who frequently pledges to uplift the nation's political culture should think twice before doing that.

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