WASHINGTON -- Before you can have debates, you have to have the debate over debates. It happens every four years. But this time it may be a little different because it is the incumbent president rather than the challenger who holds a small pair.
The quadrennial dance began when Robert Teeter, President Bush's campaign chairman, rejected the proposal of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates for three meetings between the presidential candidates and one for the vice presidential nominees. He did not rule out debates, only the immediate agreement to do three with a single moderator rather than a panel of reporters.
There is no mystery in the Bush campaign strategy here. They have visions of extended negotiations like those in 1988, in which James A. Baker III took the pants off the agents of Michael S. Dukakis and came away with just two debates and a panel of reporters on each. The theory is that a panel provides a layer of insulation for Bush, whom even his advisers do not consider a strong debater. And any time you have four reporters asking questions, you can be assured there is someone on the television screen even more unpopular than the candidates.
But candidate George Bush was bargaining from a position of strength in 1988. By the time of the debate negotiations, he had pulled ahead, and it was Dukakis who needed the debates most. This time opinion polls continue to show Bush trailing far behind Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, suggesting the challenger is the one with the hammer here.
It may not be that simple, however. It is true that Clinton has positioned himself to win politically the debate over debates by simply agreeing to the commission's proposal and planning to show up at East Lansing, Mich., for the first debate Sept. 22. That commission, after all, is led by former national chairmen of the two parties, and so it cannot be accused of a bias.
And Clinton's chairman, Mickey Kantor, is street-wise enough to see the value in forcing the negotiations to be conducted in public. If Bush needs some protective covering, why not make it apparent?
On the other hand, Clinton also has a reason to want at least one or two debates. They would assure him of an opportunity to show the largest possible audience of voters that he has the gravitas to compete on even terms with the incumbent president and, by implication, to serve as his successor in the White House.
To anyone who has followed the debates over the past three or four presidential election cycles, it is clear that the single-moderator format is preferable to a table loaded with posturing reporters. As several debates among the Democratic candidates demonstrated during the primary season, the sole moderator allows far more give-and-take between the candidates. Indeed, the best single debate of the year may have been the one between Clinton and former Gov. Jerry Brown of California on the "Donahue" television show during the New York primary campaign. In that case, moderator Donahue simply introduced the two candidates and remained totally silent as they debated for an hour.
In this case, neither Bush nor Clinton is considered a star debater. Bush has shown himself to be less than a forceful and articulate spokesman for his own cause as far back as a Republican debate at Nashua, N.H., in 1980 and a vice presidential debate with Geraldine A. Ferraro in 1984. He "won" the second debate with Dukakis in 1988 largely because Dukakis lost it. In some of the Democratic debates earlier this year, Clinton came through the TV screens as less than engaged in the give-and-take and inclined to rely on heavy doses of stultifying specifics.
But whatever the weaknesses of the candidates, there is little question the electorate wants presidential debates to be held. Many voters -- perhaps too many -- say they base their choice on the debate performances. In a year in which there is already so much evidence of voter reaction against the system, any candidate who is finally blamed for preventing debates could pay a heavy price.
So the likely outcome is two presidential debates, perhaps with different formats. But before that can be settled, we must have the debate over debates. It's right there in the instruction manual how to run for president.