The Bush-Kerry Debates
President Bush may skip one of the three debates that have been proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates and accepted by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Republican officials said yesterday. The officials said Bush’s negotiating team plans to resist the middle debate, which was to be Oct. 8 in a town meeting format in the crucial state of Missouri.
The Bush-Cheney campaign announced that its debate negotiation team will be led by James A. Baker III, who was secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. Baker headed the Bush campaign’s Florida recount response in 2000 and is the current president’s personal envoy on Iraqi debt resolution. Baker negotiated debates in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992. As chief of staff to Bush’s father in 1992, he took a cautious stance with the view that a sitting president has little to gain and much to lose in debates, according to accounts at the time.
Bush aides refused to discuss their opening position. Officials familiar with the issue said he plans to accept the commission’s first debate, which is to focus on domestic policy, and the third one, which is to focus on foreign policy. The audience for the second debate, to be at Washington University in St. Louis, was to be picked by the Gallup Organization. The commission said participants should be undecided voters from the St. Louis area. A presidential adviser said campaign officials were concerned that people could pose as undecided when they actually are partisans.
THIS IS, or so we are constantly told by partisans on both sides, the most important election of our lives — at least. At the Republican convention last week, Vice President Cheney called it “one of the most important, not just in our lives, but in our history.” You’d think, then, that both campaigns would be eager to see that voters get as much of a chance as possible to see the two candidates debate. The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored such encounters since 1988, has proposed a schedule of three 90-minute presidential debates (one on foreign policy, one on domestic issues and one a town-hall-style session with undecided voters) along with a vice presidential debate.
Democratic nominee John F. Kerry accepted the proposal in July. But even as the time for the first debate nears — it’s set for Sept. 30 in Miami — the Bush campaign hasn’t committed and may be trying to limit the number of presidential debates to two. “We look forward to these debates,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “We look forward to having a debate about debates. We will, in an appropriate time, which is shortly, talk about our intended participation.” Rather than debating about debates, President Bush should just say yes. Surely voters are entitled to at least the 4 1/2 hours of presidential debates the commission has proposed.
I’ve seen a bit of consternation over this one of late. Both headlines presume that the president somehow has a duty to accept the proposal out-of-hand. Nonsense. Indeed, Bush’s stance is perfectly reasonable here.
First, I agree that the “citizen forum” debates are idiotic. One always gets useless questions as the one from the pony-tailed gentleman in 1992 who thought the candidates were his daddy.
Second, the challenger always has much more to gain from the debates than an incumbent. Indeed, Bush has virtually nothing to gain. People already know what kind of president he’d be: He’s been the president for almost four years. Further, while Kerry has nothing better to do than prep for debates, Bush has a war to run.
Third, strategic choices are the prerogative of both candidates. Bush is ahead. The best he could do coming out of a debate would be to come out still ahead.
Fourth, and most importantly, debates have nothing to do with the presidency. Debates are supposed to demonstrate the ability of candidates to think on their feet. But presidents make decisions in the deliberative privacy of the Oval Office, surrounded by advisors, and at their own pace. The ability to memorize clever gotcha lines and insert them at the proper time in the debate is handy preparation for, well, other debates. But not much else. And, again, given that Bush is the incumbent, we already know what kind of president he’ll make.
Bush has agreed to debate Kerry on foreign policy and domestic policy. That’s a rather exhaustive list. It should suffice.