EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It's said in Civics 101 that when political debate is called off, nobody wins and the public is the loser. That is often the case, but it wasn't the other night when President Bush elected not to face off against Gov. Bill Clinton here on the Michigan State campus.
What Bush's bug-out did was hand Clinton a public-relations bonanza the dimensions of which, while not precisely measurable, have put the president on the defensive more than ever in a state critical to his re-election chances.
Four years after he handily beat Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in Michigan, Bush is trailing Clinton here as a result of a lagging recession marked by 9 percent unemployment and repeated plant closings in the auto industry. Just this week, General Motors announced it will make 27,000 fewer cars in the final quarter of 1992 than it made in the same period last year.
Bush's rejection of the Michigan State debate, apparently over differences in format but also because he didn't want to face Clinton three times or this early as the sponsoring commission proposed, was exploited to a fare-thee-well by the Clinton campaign.
For days before the scheduled debate, the Clinton operatives ran radio ads around the state in effect calling Bush chicken and telling voters he was afraid to meet Clinton in the format of a single moderator. That format, rather than use of a press panel, ++ encourages a more direct confrontation and exchange of views between the candidates.
On the day of the non-debate, Clinton came to the Michigan State campus and personally chided the president for not showing up. Waving the commission's invitation that he had accepted months earlier, Clinton charged that under that format Bush "would have had a harder time with his politics of diversion, division and denial."
In past debates, the Arkansas governor said, Bush did well in a "tightly controlled format in which he was free to dump on his opponents or attack the press" without adequate response or challenge. "I guess I can't blame him," Clinton said as the partisan crowd cheered. "If I had the worst record of any president in 50 years, I wouldn't want to defend that record either."
The Bush campaign, hoping to limit the damage and fill the gap left by the president's absence, produced Republican National Chairman Rich Bond and Michigan's Republican Gov. John Engler to tell reporters that Bush wanted debates and that it was Clinton who was blocking them by refusing to negotiate directly and privately. Small wonder. Ready to step in as the chief Bush negotiator was former Secretary of State James Baker, famed for eating Dukakis debate negotiator Paul Brountas for breakfast in 1988.
Bond unveiled a new television ad called "The Great Debate: Clinton vs. Clinton," using video clips showing Clinton making conflicting statements on various issues, including the draft controversy that the Bush campaign has been trying in vain to make the centerpiece of the campaign over which man will be the next leader of the world. It was effective television, but transparently a diversion nonetheless.
The fact that Bush wouldn't debate remained the story of the day in Michigan, as much as what Clinton said in his standard stump speech at Michigan State, or in a one-hour "town meeting" hooking up voters in four Michigan cities with Clinton and shown statewide the same night.
The failure of Bush to show up for the debate enabled Clinton to have a good segment of the Michigan television audience all to himself for an hour. And as is usually the case, the questions from the voters were cream puffs, as were occasional queries interposed by a blow-dry television newscaster.
The next morning, Bush's no-show got prominent play in newspapers around the state. The Lansing State Journal ran an editorial titled "The Great Debate Robbery." It began: "Bill Clinton came to town Tuesday, live and in color. George Bush sent a video. Whatever reality spin the two political camps put on The Debate That Wasn't, that perception is fastened securely to the memories of mid-Michigan voters . . . [they] were robbed of one of the few precious times they have to view presidential candidates, up close and personal."