No More Debate On Debates

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, September 21, 2004)


After a week of negotiation, the Bush and Kerry campaigns finally agreed to terms for the upcoming presidential debates. Despite earlier Republican posturing about limiting the number of discussions, the four dates proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates – three presidential debates and one vice-presidential – were all accepted, with the first Bush/Kerry matchup taking place Sept. 30 at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.

While the Kerry camp prevailed on the number of debates, negotiator (and longtime Bush family ally) James Baker managed to get most of the president’s other demands met.

Baker and Democratic negotiator Vernon Jordan announced the agreed-upon schedule Monday evening. After next week’s Florida meeting, Kerry and Bush will square off at Washington University in St. Louis Oct. 8, and at Arizona State University in Tempe on Oct. 13. Meanwhile, Dick Cheney and John Edwards will debate at Ohio’s Case Western University on Oct. 5.

That’s the same debate schedule proposed by the bi-partisan Commission and and accepted by Kerry in July. But by the time Baker was done negotiating, little beyond the times, locations and moderators (Jim Lehrer, Charles Gibson, Bob Schieffer and Gwen Ifill) remained unchanged.

Originally, the first debate was supposed to focus on domestic issues and the economy, with the third devoted to foreign policy. Instead, those have been flipped. As the New York Times explains, the first debate tends to draw the most viewers, and the Bush campaign wanted that larger audience to see a discussion of foreign policy (which it views as its candidate’s strength) instead of economic issues where Kerry performs better in polls.

Bush got his way again with the second, “town hall” debate. As the Boston Globe noted, this was the debate the Bush campaign had threatened to skip:

“The biggest question mark had been the middle presidential debate, which could put Bush in the unusual position of facing questions from critics. Bush campaign aides had been reluctant to agree to the St. Louis debate, but with the president commanding a solid lead in many polls, especially in Missouri, they decided it did not present much risk.”

As a result of negotiation, though, the audience for that debate will no longer comprise undecided voters. Instead, it will feature a crowd split between “soft” Kerry supporters and Bush supporters, from whom Gibson will select questions. The thinking, apparently, is that undecideds would be more likely to grill the incumbent, while a group of “soft” bipartisans would more evenly distribute the tough questions.

The agreement between the campaigns also set the guidelines for everything from makeup (each candidate gets to provide his own makeup person) to the type of table behind which Edwards and Cheney will sit (constructed “according to the style and specifications proposed by the commission in consultation with each campaign”). As the Globe notes:

“Governing items large and small, the agreement specifies such things as a stipulation that no crowd shots should be aired during the answers, cameras cannot show the opposing candidate’s reactions while the other is speaking, and that Bush and Kerry, as well as Cheney and Edwards, must shake hands at the outset of each debate.

“’Each candidate may move about in a predesignated area … and may not leave that area while debate is underway,’” says the agreement, evoking images of Al Gore approaching Bush — much to the then-Texas governor’s surprise — during the 2000 campaign. ‘The chairs will be swivel chairs that can be locked in place and shall be of equal height,’ it adds, a concern of the Bush campaign as the 6-foot president faces off against the 6-foot-4-inch Massachusetts senator.”

Now that such minutiae have been agreed upon in a 32-page document, both campaigns have begun the game of lowering expectations. As the New York Daily News notes:

“Bush and Kerry both want the millions of voters who will watch the first debate on Sept. 30 from Coral Gables, Fla., to believe he’s pathetically outclassed.

“That’s why Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart, in the finest tradition of Clintonian excess, could maintain with a straight face that President Bush has never lost a debate. Or why chief Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd, normally the essence of sobriety, could recently declare: ‘John Kerry is the greatest debater since Cicero.’”

How the expectations game will play out – and whether the debates will effectively change the race’s dynamics – remain to be seen. But at least voters now know when they’ll find out.

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