Debates are theater, not meaningful tests

ROGER SIMON

September 16, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

I am going out on a limb to predict that there will be no debate between George Bush and Bill Clinton on Sept. 22.

Clinton says he will show up in East Lansing, Mich., on that date to debate whether Bush shows up or not. And Clinton scheduled Tuesday afternoon off for "debate prep."

"Prep" is a big part of modern political debating.

The candidate stands at a podium designed to look like the real podium.

A member of his staff takes the part of the opposing candidate. And other staff members take the part of the questioners.

The staff then tests the candidate, throwing every hardball question at him that they can think of.

They all have large briefing books filled with the best possible answers and they rehearse the candidate until he gets his lines right.

Learning your lines is what debates are all about. That's because debates are theater. They have almost nothing to do with telling us how a person will act or react as president.

They have everything to do with telling us how good a performer the candidate is.

Which is why the press and the public like debates so much. We want to see a good show. We want to see if there will be "fireworks" or a major mistake.

We remember the vice-presidential debate of 1988 only because of the "Jack Kennedy" line that Lloyd Bentsen used on Dan Quayle.

We remember the second presidential debate that year only because Mike Dukakis blew his response to a question on the death penalty.

But do you remember the first presidential debate in 1988? Of course not. There were no fireworks. No mistakes. And so it made no impression.

One defense of the current debate format in which the candidates are peppered with questions that demand an instant response is that it tells you how a person reacts under pressure. (Interestingly enough, this is the exact excuse the Miss America Pageant uses to continue the swimsuit competition.)

In reality, however, the pressure generated by a debate is not the kind of pressure that tells us anything meaningful about a candidate.

It is merely the pressure to remember one's lines exactly like any good actor would.

Michael Dukakis had been prepped in advance about that death penalty question. But he forgot his lines and tried to wing it during the debate. He tried to answer candidly instead of regurgitating the prepared response.

The result was a disaster. The press savaged him and his campaign never recovered.

In real life, however, presidents do not have to come up with instant answers, memorized or otherwise. George Bush did not have to make the decision to launch the Gulf War either instantly or alone.

He took his time. He consulted others. And that is the way we wish presidents to act.

Debates do not allow for this. No candidate is allowed to say: "I'd like to think that over for a few minutes." No candidate is allowed to say: "I don't know the answer to that, but I'm sure I can find some experts to consult with." Instead, debates have taken on all the theatrical aspects of pro wrestling and smart campaigns take a lot of time to get their acts down in advance.

This is why George Bush is not rushing into any debates. He wants to negotiate the format. He wants to pick the dates and places. He wants to squeeze every advantage he can before he climbs into the ring.

Four years ago, the "Memorandum of Understanding" negotiated the Bush and Dukakis campaigns to set up debate rules went on for 16 pages. (I have a copy and it is dated Sept. 28, which means Bush still has a few weeks to hem and haw if he follows the same pattern.)

The rules include such things as "There will be no direct candidate-to-candidate questioning" and "Neither candidate's height will exceed 74 inches above the stage floor when the candidates are standing at their podiums."

This time, Bill Clinton wants to do away with negotiations over rules. He wants to accept the rules already put forth by a debate commission.

But that commission spent its time, in the words of one newspaper, in "an honest, bipartisan attempt to raise the debate above politics."

So, in other words, forget it. New rules will be negotiated. And then it will be on with the show.

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