Kerry Challenges Bush to Monthly Debates


Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, visiting the site of one of the most famous political debates in U.S. history, planned to challenge President Bush on Saturday to a “real discussion about America’s future” in a monthly series of debates.

Kerry, already engaged in a running exchange of negative ads with Bush eight months before the November election, planned to deliver the challenge at the site of the historic Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates in Quincy, Illinois.

That series of 1858 senatorial debates between Douglas and Lincoln, who lost the Senate election but won the presidency two years later, is legendary in U.S. political history for elevating crucial issues like slavery and states’ rights to the front of the U.S. political agenda.

“Surely, if the attack ads can start now at least we can agree to start a real discussion about America’s future,” Kerry said in remarks prepared for delivery in Quincy, Illinois, later on Saturday.

This is a good ploy on Kerry’s part, since it appears to be serious despite its absurdity. No incumbent president would possibly agree to such a thing before the conventions, given that they have an actual job to do, while Kerry is essentially being paid $158,000 a year for campaigning.

Presidents make appearances, which become quite blurred with campaigning, all the time. While time consuming, it’s a regular part of the job and doesn’t take that much preparation once there’s a standard stump speech in place. By contrast, getting ready for a big-time debate takes days. It’s not even comparable to the mini-debates that go on during primary season, which have multiple candidates and a tiny audience. Doing more that two or three of them is just too much of a drain.

From a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense for an incumbent president to debate more than that, anyway. Going head-to-head with one’s general election opponent conveys a sense of equality that diminishes a president’s stature advantage. Further, an election featuring an incumbent president is almost always a referendum on his performance. Waiting until after the conventions–the traditional starting point for the “official” general election campaign–gives a president’s team the ability to gauge the political climate and make a calculation as to how many debates to agree to, their timing, and the format.

And, of course, only us political junkies are paying much attention right now, anyway. Going through all the work of prepping for a debate in the spring–months before the election–just doesn’t make sense right now. Indeed, all we can do at this point is make educated guesses as to what the major issues will be.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, The Presidency, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. dw says:

    Then what’s the president doing hitting these fundraising dinners? I mean, is he off the clock? Honestly.

    I’d love to see weekly debates, but I’d would only require the candidates to show up at 75% of them. The other 25% will feature substitute debaters. Imagine the ratings on a Sharpton-Coulter tussle, or a Hannity-O’Reilly vs. Ivins-Franken tag team steel cage death match.

  2. John A. Kalb says:

    Kerry pulled the same thing on Weld in ’96, and was absolutely nasty in the debates.

    The one thing Bush needs to do is insist that Nader is at all the debates. That way, Kerry is being attacked from two sides. That’s the only real response.

  3. Mark L says:

    Actually, this gives Bush an opportunity to look Presidential.

    His spokeman can explain that as much fun as it would be having a debate with Senator Kerry, being President is not about fun, it is about running a country in a time of war. Senator Kerry — who, by the way, has been absent from his job as Senator for some 80% of the votes — has time for this kind of fun, because after all, he isn’t doing anything serious. President Bush has a war to run. That *is* serious. That is President Bush’s first responsibility, just as Senator Kerry’s first responsiblity is to represent his state in the Senate. And while Senator Kerry may choose to play and amuse himself, President Bush will stick to his responsibilities. Should Senator Kerry demonstrate that he is serious about his responsibilities — like showing up for his job at the Senate for the next four months — and *still* feels that the Senator has time for games like debates, why then, after Senator Kerry discharges his obligation to the citizens of Mass, why President Bush will see if he has time for games like debates.

    Wouldn’t that be a corker?

  4. Brian A. says:

    I agree with your last two paragraphs. But arguing that the president can’t debate because he’s too busy? Sure, with all the million dollar fundraisers, rodeos, and Crawford brush clearing weighing down his schedule.


  5. James Joyner says:

    Down time is essential for people is positions of great stress. And even when on “vacation,” a president is working more than a full day’s schedule.

    It isn’t showing up for the debate that’s a problem, it’s the days of prep leading up to it. A president is always in campaign mode to some degree, but he can’t go into full-blown campaigning until the last three or four months. A Senator has nothing else to do. If he skips out on debates, committee hearings, and even votes, it’s usually irrelevant. A president simply doesn’t have that luxury.

  6. A Senator has nothing else to do. If he skips out on debates, committee hearings, and even votes, it’s usually irrelevant.

    Thank God John Warner and George Allen disagree with you.

    The man has barely shown up for work for about nine months. And I’m paying a portion of his salary?

    People can snark about President Bush doing campaign-related things, but it’s all BS. Kerry has shirked his duty for months, while President Bush has been busy running a country. Earning his pay, as it were, as opposed to the country’s highest-paid welfare queen.

  7. Mark L says:

    Jalal Abu Jarhead catches the point that would be slammed home with my approach — that Bush is too busy running a war, while Kerry, a Senator, can skip his work, and only his state suffers. You don’t frame the issue soley as “Bush is too busy.” You also add “And Kerry has time to do this because he isn’t doing his job, anyway.”

    I suggestsed adding a conditional that after Kerry makes all of his Senate votes for three consecutive months that the President will be thrilled to have monthly debates with Kerry — if Kerry still has the time to debate. Leave it at that. Whenever Kerry raises the issue have the Presidential spokesman again repeat that when Kerry starts doing Kerry’s job full-time again, it will be time for Kerry to raise the issue.

    What’s Kerry going to do with that approach?