What we call presidential debates today are no such thing, in format or substance.
A debate posts a hypothesis, a course of action about which one can argue yes or no. The formal structure "Resolved: that ..." can be used if desired. "Resolved: that the United States should not continue the Vietnam War," was one potent topic of yesteryear, stated here in its negative form, about which history has clearly ruled in the affirmative.
A debate should be gladiatorial. The 1960 Nixon-Kennedy confrontation - John F. Kennedy cool and Richard Nixon sweating - invited conflict as between two rival Irish-led political clans.
The so-called presidential debates, especially during the nomination phase, are really panel discussions. As a concession to television, one or more media moderators are used. This will be the case with the first of this fall's debates, Oct. 6 in Hartford, Conn. The second presidential debate, Oct. 16 in San Diego's Town Hall, will follow an audience-engaging talk-show format. In between, the vice-presidential debate, Oct. 9 in St. Petersburg, Fla., will probably be preoccupied with keeping the GOP's garrulous Jack Kemp within a time limit.
To heighten conflict, moderators should be omitted. If speakers run long, cut off their mikes or subtract from their next turn. If they turn abusive or boring, let the public judge accordingly.
Panel or moderator formats invite an affirmative style; candidates stick largely to their own cases. Debating the negative is an art. The negative side can take a pragmatic approach and argue that the affirmative's solution would lead to no improvement in the status quo, or would leave things worse, or would cost more than its benefits justify. The negative can rest its case on this pragmatic basis and win, or absorb the affirmative's remedy in a policy recommendation of its own, or propose a novel solution.
President Clinton, by absorbing recent Republican proposals such as welfare reform, has shown some of the instincts of the natural pragmatic debater. Mr. Clinton has developed a very low-key, conversational approach that is very effective, especially when he is challenged on the character issue. Bob Dole is a natural attacker. His problem with Clinton is that the Democrat has put forward a profusion of policies that are hard for Mr. Dole to attack systematically.
But the true negative position in this election final is held by Ross Perot. Excluded from the debates by the decision of a debate commission dominated by the major parties, Mr. Perot gets considerable attention as the wounded outsider. Dole will bear the brunt of Perot's reaction.
Commission or not, the front-runner decides whether there will be debates and their format. Clinton has set this up, knowing that if the debates are canceled because of the Perot legal challenge, Clinton does not need the debates. Dole, with ground to make up, looks like the excluder.
It would not matter all that much if there were no debates this fall. The candidates can be interviewed. They are known quantities. Nothing like the Vietnam conflict is on the table. The Newt Gingrich midterm election of 1994 has all but exhausted public interest in secondary issues.
We could hear a debate on, say, whether the Federal Reserve Board should adopt a stimulative economic policy. Or, better, "Resolved: that the United States should act to reduce its prison population at the same rate at which it balances its budget." On this topic I would take the affirmative.
A formal debate has a judge and scoring criteria. For these, we will have polls instead of a score and, more crucially, an election, for which a debate is not essential.
*Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.