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Jewish World Review March 20, 2000 /13 Adar II, 5760

Tony Snow

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Give the liars a good jolt -- AL GORE has thrown down the gauntlet! He has raised the bar!

He has drawn a line in the sand! He has challenged George W. Bush to debate him twice a week on national television from now until Nov. 7.

Before exploring the merits of his proposal, read carefully the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It says: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." These protections apply to everyone in every phase of life, including those who might unwittingly switch on their TVs, anticipating entertainment. We will return to this constitutional matter presently.

But first, let us think practically. The vice president is proposing something on the order of 60 debates, assuming the candidates don't spar during their respective national conventions. This is the equivalent of three years' worth of episodes of any network sitcom or drama; the face-offs would appear more often than network broadcasts of baseball games and stock-car races.

Now, it's not tough to come up with a half-dozen basic debate topics: foreign policy, national defense, the environment, health care, taxes and Social Security. Heck, the contestants could even throw in gun control, crime, the judiciary, abortion/euthanasia, civil rights and immigration.

But then potential subjects would begin to thin out -- and before long, organizers would have no choice but to steal ideas from Jenny Jones and Jerry Springer: "Do real men wear earth tones?" "Why are so many women wearing capri pants?" "Should Congress outlaw poodle tossing on federal highways?" And: "Why my wife is better than your wife."

Such disputations would tax even the most gifted entertainers, but let's face it: The average American would rather watch Britney Spears recite the Odyssey in Homeric Greek than watch Bush and Gore trade witticisms. One can imagine C-SPAN drawing away viewers by broadcasting "The Best of Jim Trafficant."

Al Gore understands ratings, and he knows regular debates would be the next best thing to entering the FBI witness protection program. He and Bush would vanish from public view, and networks would lose billions of dollars.

There's method to his madness, but from a practical standpoint, the debate idea is a dog.

Now, consider the political angles. A number of commentators have suggested that Bush take up the offer for pragmatic reasons. The thinking goes: Gore is a better and more seasoned debater. Therefore, let Bush get slaughtered early in the election season, so nobody will care when November rolls around. Keep in mind, the people offering this analysis count themselves among Bush's friends and supporters -- which may be why it has been so easy for his enemies to keep tarring him with the "lightweight" label.

This too-cute strategy mistakenly assumes that debates count for something. But if that were the case, Alan Keyes would be President for Life. As presently constituted, presidential gabfests merely measure candidates' willingness to submit themselves to the procrustean manipulations of speechwriters and pollsters. The politicians look glassy-eyed into the cameras and spit out scripted openings, closings, evasions, one-liners, ripostes and jokes. As a result, "debates" lack drama, spontaneity, inspiration, honesty and truth.

This suggests a possible remedy: Exact a price for bad behavior. Subject contestants to a proper grilling by a ruthless tribunal -- say, a panel of New York cabbies -- and provide instant gratification for viewers by letting one lucky citizen administer high-voltage shocks each time a candidate lies, evades a question or willingly distortes the truth.

(One can imagine the designated zapper grinning and asking, "Is that your final answer?")

Unfortunately, the Eighth Amendment stands in the way. Overzealous citizens almost certainly would make Messrs. Bush and Gore dance the Electric Glide as penance for the sins of their political forbears. This leaves us with an unusual dilemma: Five dozen debates would constitute cruel and unusual punishment of the American public, while a few kilowatts' worth of behavior modification could place the candidates within the Eight Amendment's protection.

But of course Gore is speaking in jest when he suggests thespian warfare. He no more wants to debate regularly than he wants to swear off soft money. When Bill Bradley took up a similar Gore "challenge" to hash out issues weekly, negotiations went nowhere.

The vice president simply likes the tactic of throwing opponents off balance by spitting out bizarre and impossible "offers." I have no beef with the strategy. It provides drama. Why not go for something with more pizzazz -- like asking Jesse Ventura to moderate the coloquies or agreeing to simultaneus polygraph exams during all debates and public appearances?

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate