Was the Kerry-Bush Match a Real Debate?

Did you watch the presidential candidates' first matchup? It was more of a real debate than people expected. But still it was so much less than it might have been.

It looked as if they were going to go at each other, but then moderator Jim Lehrer listed the rules.

For each question the candidates could offer only a two-minute response, a 90-second rebuttal and, at Lehrer's discretion, a discussion extension of one minute.  A green light came on when 30 seconds remained in any given answer, yellow at 15 seconds, red at five.

The political class has done it to us again. Republicans and Democrats got together and crafted rules to try to prevent anything surprising or revealing from happening.

When John Kerry said, "I have a better plan for homeland security," I wanted President Bush to ask him, "Exactly what is that plan?" But that wasn't allowed.

And when the president said that "75 percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice," I thought the Massachusetts senator would say, "But haven't those leaders been replaced by even more people who hate us?" But because the candidates weren't supposed to talk to each other, we voters had fewer opportunities to hear the candidates argue their points.

The contract for this year's debates is unbelievable, running 30-some pages. And the rules governing every aspect of the debate are endless:

  • The temperature must be 68 degrees.

  • Humidity must not to exceed 50 percent.

  • Ceiling height must be at least 35 feet.

    The parties want to have a monopoly over presidential debates they can control, said George Farah, author of No Debate, which details how the established parties — in secret — agreed to rules that stifle debate.

    "What kind of debate prohibits the candidates from actually talking to each other? That's not a debate. That's a glorified bipartisan press conference," Farah said.

    Thursday night it brought us a lot of tedious repetition. President Bush repeatedly said Saddam Hussein was a threat. John Kerry's mantra was "win the peace."

    The most revealing moments were the few times the candidates and networks broke the rules: When they spoke directly to each other, and the networks showed the candidates' reactions.

    Debates didn't used to be this constrained. They used to be run by the League of Women Voters, which fought aggressively on behalf of the American people for engaging debates and the inclusion of popular independent candidates.

    "They always allowed follow-up questions. They selected aggressive moderators. They had rebuttals and sur-rebuttals, so you got past the memorized sound bite and forced the candidate to have to think on stage in front of tens of millions of voters," Farah said.

    Those ground rules created spontaneous moments during the debates. President Reagan was able to respond to concerns about his age with a memorable quip in his 1984 debate with Democratic opponent Walter Mondale. "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience," Reagan said. Mondale's response demonstrated his sense of humor.

    Sometimes there was a third candidate in the debate. But Republicans and Democrats don't like that. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot was excluded from the 1996 presidential debates even though three-quarters of the American people wanted to see him debate with Bob Dole and Bill Clinton.

    "Dole desperately wanted Perot excluded, because he thought Perot would take more votes away from him, and Clinton wanted a nonevent," according to Farah.

    In 1988, the League of Women Voters refused to implement restrictions set out by the major parties, and withdrew its sponsorship of the presidential debates.

    "We have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public," said the group's president, Nancy Neuman.

    So the established parties took it over and excluded everyone else. It's like the political class protecting itself.

    "Absolutely. They were sick and tired of a women's organization telling their boys who they could participate with and under what conditions," Farah said.

    So they created conditions that limit debate, even outlawing extra debates.

    According to their rules, the candidates will not appear at any other debate with any other presidential or vice-presidential candidate. Farah called this "an outrageous violation of free speech that undermines democratic process."

    It's a good point. A democracy should encourage more, not less, talk about important political differences.

    But the leaders of our political parties don't want you to hear too much.

    Give Me a Break.

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