The way things are going, this may end up being the first campaign since 1972 in which the presidential candidates didn’t debate. But it will surely be remembered as the campaign in which the candidates debated most bitterly about when, where, and how to debate. This morning, George W. Bush went on television to defend his proposal for three face-offs, only one of which would be sponsored by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Meanwhile, Al Gore went on the tube to accuse Bush of substituting his plan for the commission’s three debates in order to limit the number of viewers. Hours later, Bush unveiled an ad accusing Gore of reneging on two debate forums he had already accepted. The ad concludes, “If we can’t trust Al Gore on debates, why should we trust him on anything?”
Frame Game is torn about this controversy. On the one hand, Bush raises several creative and valid questions about the commission’s plan. Why should the debates not begin until October? Bush wants to start next Tuesday. Why should the candidates stand at podiums, alternately fielding questions from a single moderator, with no panel of journalists? “Sometimes the formats lend themselves to who best can walk around the stage, act dramatically. I’d rather have a good discussion,” says Bush. He thinks a “free-flowing” conversational exchange, perhaps seated around a table, would better illuminate each candidate’s ability to govern. And why should the commission dictate the schedule and format? Shouldn’t the structure of the debates be open to debate?
The trouble is, Bush has buried these good ideas under a bunch of bad ones. His best argument is about the format of the debates, but he has drawn the battle lines instead over the schedule. The proposal he announced Monday specified a schedule but no format. His preoccupation with the calendar looks doubly petty because his adversary, the commission, has expressed flexibility precisely on the question of format. While claiming that the schedule can’t be changed because it was negotiated painstakingly with all the TV networks, the commission’s executive director has stipulated repeatedly that she’s amenable to “candidate input on format.” The commission thereby appears thoughtful about what’s important, while Bush appears to be looking for a pointless fight.
Bush could have mitigated this problem by negotiating with the commission beforehand. Instead, he surprised the media by showing up Monday with an abrupt ultimatum: these three debates chosen by me, or nothing. Bush’s campaign chairman refused to negotiate further with the commission, insisting, “This is our final answer. This is it.” Bush thereby forfeited the moral high ground. Rather than present a creative, open-minded challenge to the stuffy commission, he delivered an equally close-minded list of demands. Gore’s campaign chairman punished Bush for this rigid fiat by replying, “No candidate should arrogantly insist on debating where and when it best suits him.” The press likewise reported that Bush “announced” and “imposed” his own “handpicked” schedule.
The chief selling point of the commission’s plan is its audience: Having arranged for simultaneous prime-time coverage on all the major networks, the commission can guarantee scores of millions of viewers. To sell an alternative package of debates, Bush needed to match this audience by negotiating similar joint coverage beforehand. Having neglected this preparation, he ended up proposing debates on specific programs—NBC’s Meet the Press and CNN’s Larry King Live—which the other networks refused, out of predictable corporate rivalry, to air. Gore has feasted on this difference, accusing Bush of trying to limit the viewing audience. The media have bought this line, in part because Bush aides hedged until last week about whether Bush would debate on the top three networks in prime time. Bush has also taken a pounding because the NBC and CNN shows he proposes to substitute for the commission’s 90-minute debates are only 60 minutes long.
The Bush camp thinks it can challenge the commission’s authority because, as a Bush adviser told the New York Times, “Nobody knows who the commission is.” That’s true. But there’s a case to be made for the commission’s authority. As the debate over debates heats up, the media are explaining to readers and viewers that the commission is led by the former chairmen of both parties, that it has sponsored all of the fall debates in the past three presidential campaigns, that it has arranged a broadcast consensus with the networks, and that it announced its schedule in January. What has Bush done to match these arguments? He hasn’t made a case that the commission is partisan. He hasn’t arranged a comparable broadcast deal with the networks. He has been silent about the commission’s plan all year and has waited until September to announce, with a week’s notice, his alternative plan. In the contest of authority, he is trying to beat something with nothing.
Bush is also trying to persuade voters that he wants to debate, whereas Gore doesn’t. But Bush has done nothing to prepare the public for this argument. Imagine what would happen if Gore were to announce tomorrow that he’s the only candidate who wants tax cuts, vouchers, and a strong military. No one would believe him, because he has done nothing during the campaign to make that claim credible. Bush has put himself in exactly this situation. For six months, while Gore accepted every debate invitation, including the commission’s, Bush accepted none. Less than a week before Bush announced his debate plan, his aides were publicly refusing to make any debate commitments. All of which leaves him in a lousy position to paint Gore as the candidate who’s ducking debates.
Worst of all, Bush aides have affirmed that they’re using the debate over debates not to make Gore accept their plan but to frame him as a liar for rejecting it. Monday, announcing his proposal for a Sept. 12 debate, Bush asserted, “I take Al Gore at his word that he will be there.” Behind the scenes, however, the Washington Post reported, “Bush’s strategists figured that Gore would not accept the proposal.” Today, the Bush camp essentially confirmed that report by releasing its new ad, which boasts that Gore’s rejection of Bush’s offer proves what Bush has said all along about Gore’s dishonesty. By overtly planning to show that Gore was never serious about agreeing to debates, Bush showed that he was never serious about proposing them.
There are two ways of interpreting Bush’s failure to make his position in the debate war credible. One is that he botched the strategic preparation and execution necessary to sell his position. The other is that he’s lying. Either way, he has disserved not only himself, his party, and the public but also the worthwhile questions he has sought to raise. Are formal debates really the best way to expose how each candidate would manage the presidency? Would a less theatrical, less confrontational format serve the public better? And why should these questions be left to an unelected commission controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties? Someday, a major presidential candidate will raise and press those questions persuasively. Evidently, that candidate won’t be George W. Bush.