Jewish World Review June 28, 2004 / 9 Tamuz, 5764

Carl P. Leubsdorf

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Reagan set the pattern for debates that Bush should follow | One of Ronald Reagan's less remembered legacies was his decision in 1984 to accept two televised presidential debates at a time he held an almost insurmountable lead over Democratic challenger Walter Mondale.

Every incumbent since has debated his principal opponent at least twice, making it now an expected part of the presidential campaign season.

This year, President Bush has an opportunity to continue that legacy by accepting the sensible plan of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates without the usual wrangling and gamesmanship. It calls for three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate.

Neither Bush nor Democratic rival John Kerry has yet committed to either the number of debates or the schedule. That's understandable since they are not yet officially nominated.

But some in the Bush camp note that Reagan and Bill Clinton only debated twice in their re-election bids. And in 2000, Bush sought unsuccessfully to change the debate schedule and reduce the commission's role.

The president's father, the first President George Bush, also initially resisted a commission schedule. But the fact that he was trailing in his 1992 re-election campaign forced him to accept three debates and to include a third candidate, Dallas computer magnate Ross Perot.

The commission, co-chaired by former Republican National Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf and former Democratic National Chairman Paul Kirk, has given itself important leverage by scheduling the proposed 2004 encounters for four key "swing" states.

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The three presidential debates are scheduled for Coral Gables, Fla.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Tempe, Ariz.; the vice-presidential debate is set for Cleveland, Ohio. If a candidate resists any of these locations, he could face a rival's charge that he is avoiding the voters in a crucial state.

The first debate would focus on domestic issues and the last on international issues.

It's hard to see how it would be in either candidate's interest to avoid any of the debates. Both Bush and Kerry have a history of good debate performances and, while debates have sometimes helped lesser-known challengers, there's no sign that either Reagan or Clinton suffered from their performances.

Quick acceptance by the two major candidates would avoid the silly jockeying for advantageous timing and format.

Acceptance of the commission plan would likely limit the debates to the only two candidates with a chance of winning. Only Bush and Kerry seem likely to meet the requirements that a candidate be constitutionally eligible for president, appear on enough ballots to have a mathematical chance of getting the required 270 electoral votes and average at least 15 percent in five national polls.

Perot met those standards in 1992. But the main third-party candidate this year, Ralph Nader, has never surpassed the upper single digits, and many polls show him below 5 percent.

In 1980 the League of Women Voters ran the debates. When the league decided to include independent candidate John Anderson, President Jimmy Carter boycotted the first debate, which pitted the Illinois Republican congressman against Mr. Reagan, the GOP nominee.

Later, Anderson faded, and Carter agreed to debate Reagan. But the former California governor's showing in their only encounter a week before the election proved decisive in his victory.

Many thought that the four historic 1960 confrontations between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon would guarantee regular debates. But his successors, Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon, subsequently refused to debate.

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Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Comment by clicking here.


05/28/04: Ironically, Prez relied on seasoned advisers for gravitas — and now he's being made the scapegoat for their screw-ups
05/04/04: Gramm's former student Hensarling picks up the cause
03/04/04: No one's whistling ‘Dixie’
03/01/04: Voting for veep?
09/05/03: As debates begin, Democrats likely to shuffle positions
08/29/03: Will 2008 see a Clinton-Hutchison presidential contest?
08/01/03: Dems risk loss if they heed special interests
07/18/03: Prez not his father's son

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