The If, What, When Of the Debates: President Prevails

The Clinton negotiators on the debates knew they would pretty much get what they wanted - and they did. The strength of their position lay in the fact that Bob Dole needs the debates more than the president does. Indeed, had the Dole negotiators pushed too hard, the president's people could have said, "OK, we just won't have any debates." When you're far ahead, you can play that game.

The public has become accustomed to these presidential debates every four years. The word one usually reads or hears is that the voters "expect" debates. Perhaps most Americans have come to believe that these debates are part of the process of electing a president.

So a president who would say, "No debates this year," would risk some displeasure from the voters and the news media. But with such a big lead over his opponent, President Clinton could take that risk and, at the same time, rid himself of an even bigger risk: that in the debates he might commit some gaffe that would turn the race around.

No, there was no threat from Clinton or those representing him that if they didn't get their way they would have refused to debate. Nor, for that matter, was there any speculation in the news media that Mr. Dole risked losing the debates if he pushed too hard.

I asked Democratic Party chairman Christopher Dodd about it at a Monitor breakfast a few days before the debate schedule was agreed upon. No, he said, Clinton would debate because he "wanted to debate." The schedule would be worked out amicably.

Senator Dodd talked happily about the debates because he was already seeing an emerging schedule that fit with the president's best interests. There was no need to discuss any Clinton alternative of abandoning the debates if he didn't get his way. He was getting his way.

Clinton had wanted two, not three, debates. And he got his two. He didn't want the first to be scheduled too early. The Oct. 6 date fits that requirement. He didn't want the last debate to be too close to the election. The Oct. l6 date meets that need. Clinton wanted one of the two to have a town-meeting format, which he particularly likes. The second will have the town-meeting flavor.

The president got, basically, everything he wanted on how and when the debates will be run. So why even talk about any possible threat of Clinton taking a walk if he didn't get his way? The Clinton negotiators held a powerful, though hidden, card that helped them immeasurably in shaping a debate structure and timing that are favorable to their candidate.

I chuckled a little when I watched Dole's debate negotiator, Donald Rumsfeld, in a TV appearance with Clinton's representative, Mickey Kantor. Mr. Kantor made it clear that he wasn't budging on his demands. And Mr. Rumsfeld remained friendly and agreeable as he responded to Kantor's implacability. What other course had Rumsfeld to take? He knew that the president held the high strategic ground in working out these arrangements.

So the Dole people were walking on eggs in negotiating the debates. And, with that implicit threat of a walkout always in the background, they had to allow Clinton - a formidable debater - to debate on his own terms.

Does the favorable framework for the debates that the Clinton people have worked out for him mean he's likely to win? The answer has to be "yes." Even Dole concedes Clinton is the better debater. So the president would be expected to outshine his opponent, particularly when the debates are being set up to Clinton's advantage.

But remember how Nixon was supposed to give Kennedy a lesson in debating in that TV encounter back in 1960? Underdog Kennedy pulled off a tremendous surprise, in the eyes of the voters, by beating the top-heavy favorite, Nixon. That's a debate that turned an election around. And, though very unlikely, it could happen again.

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