The Bush Team's Debatable Move

THE first presidential debate of 1992 would have been held tonight in East Lansing, Mich., if the Bush campaign had been willing. A bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates had scheduled four contests for this fall, three Bush-Clinton and one Quayle-Gore. The Democrats quickly signed on, but the president's team had doubts all along.

The reason for Bush's reluctance was the format chosen by the commission: a single-moderator to mediate direct give-and-take between the candidates. Past debates have often turned wooden, with the contenders responding in predictable, pre-packaged ways to queries from a panel of journalists, or with the journalists stealing the show with zinger questions.

The commission rightly concluded that the public would be better served by an arrangement that allowed more free-wheeling discussion. But what serves the public and what serves political strategists aren't the same thing.

Bush advisers worry that their man might seem slow-footed against the voluble Arkansas governor, so they want the less-open panel format. They want the format determined by negotiations between the two camps. The governor will milk Bush's refusal to show up in East Lansing for a while before taking up the Republican offer. But he'll probably negotiate, and we'll probably end up with at least a couple of debates along the lines of the old format.

Isn't this just politics as usual? Presidential debates have always come down to ad hoc arrangements in the heat of the campaign, and incumbents always have the least to gain from the encounters and the most reason evade them. Which is why the commission was formed, and why its plan should stand. And if in the future either party has a problem, it should be brought up when the plan is made public, not months later.

Voters have every reason to be put out with the president's men for derailing what had promised to be an innovative and informative series of debates.

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