Growing Call for
Los Angeles Times
"Take the Gloves Off"
June 12, 2004: Editorial emphasizes benefits of debates that include all
Raise your hand if you stayed awake through all
three presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
Right. With pre-selected questions, deferential moderators and minimal
follow-up queries, televised presidential debates in recent years have devolved
into yawners that turn off more voters than they enlighten. No surprise that the
audience for these glorified photo ops has plummeted; 25 million fewer Americans
saw the 2000 debates than the 1992 face-off. That drop in viewership is
reflected in basement-level voter turnout.
The problem is that the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit
corporation that has sponsored the debates since 1988, runs this contest largely
in the interests of the two major parties, not the voters. Commission members
the big-name representatives for the Democratic and Republican standard-bearers
agree to exclude third-party candidates, even those like Ralph Nader and Pat
Buchanan who draw significant voter support in the polls. Moreover, by
negotiating every detail in advance including the shape of the podiums, the
space that candidates must keep between themselves and, of course, the nature of
the questioning they ensure that the meetings yield mostly chewed-over
The upstart Citizens Debate Commission believes this year's debates could be
more illuminating. The recently formed bipartisan group includes
heavyweights like Heritage Foundation founding President Paul Weyrich, Jehmu
Greene of Rock the Vote, and TransAfrica Forum founder Randall Robinson, along
with a growing roster of organizational backers. They want a more spontaneous
format and a bigger crowd on stage. Follow-up questions should challenge evasive
or misleading answers, and there should be some candidate-to-candidate
well as rebuttals.
Third-party candidates can raise pressing issues and energize voters. Some even
have a chance of victory, or, as Nader demonstrated four years ago, they can
play the spoiler. That's why the commission believes that debates should include
serious alternative candidates. To avoid a circus, it would limit participation
to those who qualify for enough state ballots to make an electoral college
majority possible and who achieve at least 5% voter support in national polls.
Voters grown cynical after a ceaseless barrage of attack ads deserve to
hear the candidates discuss issues face to face in a spontaneous, unscripted
format. Presidential debates provided that forum once and could again. The
Citizens Debate Commission plans to host five 90-minute debates across the
nation this fall at small colleges. If one of the major candidates signs on, the
other will face substantial pressure to join him. Sen. Kerry? President Bush?