The Debatable Debates

After all the clatter of campaign ads and stump speeches, voters this election year will soon be able to watch the two main presidential candidates in three televised "debates."

But voters shouldn't be fooled. These won't be the bona fide debates of the Lincoln-Douglas variety. Rather, as in recent election years, they are tightly organized, first by the politicized Commission on Presidential Debates (itself controlled by Democrats and Republicans), and then through secret negotiations between the campaigns in setting dates, places, and conditions.

And, in a Catch-22 set by the commission, third-party candidates that might win high poll ratings if they were allowed in the debates are excluded because they haven't reached a high enough rating before the debates.

Still, the debates remain popular because voters assume they will provide a close look at candidates as they are grilled on important issues.

If only that were true.

The debates have become too staged and the answers too canned. The decline in the authenticity of the debates has resulted in a lower percentage of Americans watching them. Only 47 million people watched the last debate between George Bush and Al Gore, compared with some 80 million who tuned in for the Carter-Reagan debates in 1980.

If candidates routinely spoke more freely and in less packaged ways to the press during the campaign, the importance of these debates would diminish. Obviously, whenever candidates can speak for themselves and show their unvarnished ability to support their viewpoints substantively, the public is well served.

But neither George Bush nor John Kerry has been particularly accessible to the political press, and thus to the public, as they try to choose their questioners carefully.

Voters need as full an understanding of the candidates' positions on issues as possible to make an informed choice. Presidential debates should better reflect that notion.

Meantime, mark your calendars: The first of three 90-minute debates will be held Sept. 30. The subject: foreign policy. The second debate, Oct. 8, will be a town-hall forum with voters chosen by the Gallup Organization asking the questions. The third, on Oct. 13, will focus on domestic issues - likely to include the economy, jobs, the environment, and healthcare. A vice-presidential debate will be held Oct. 5.

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