Presidential Debates keeps saying it...


September 28, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THE COMMISSION ON Presidential Debates keeps saying it wants President Bush and Governor Clinton to stand up face to face before a single moderator and an audience and debate.

Why? Presidents of the United States are called on to perform a lot of different functions, but nothing in the Constitution or the U.S. Code suggests a duty in which a president needs to debate anybody.

I have read a lot of history, and while I may have missed or forgotten something, I know of no instances in which a president furthered national aims by public debates of the sort the commission and the pro-Clinton camp keep insisting on.

In fact, I know of only six occasions in history when a president of the United States debated publicly even in the format President Bush proposes -- with several journalists as questioners. Those six times had nothing to do with presidential duties. They all had to do with election politics. They all took place during presidential campaigns.

President Gerald Ford debated Jimmy Carter three times in 1976. President Carter debated Ronald Reagan once in 1980, and President Reagan debated Walter Mondale twice in 1984. Did the debates change things? I don't know.

Here are some poll figures. You decide:

In 1976, a Gallup Poll found that by a margin of 32-25 percent viewers of the first Ford-Carter debate thought Ford "won." Ford gained on Carter in the presidential preference polling, promptly going from a deficit of 36-54 percent to 42-50. A Carter loss of 10 points. Ford kept gaining to within 2 points of Carter, then dropped to 6 behind after a second debate in which he made an incredible gaffe, saying that the Soviet Union did not dominate Eastern European nations. After a dull third debate, Gallup had Ford a point ahead. Carter won the election a few days later by 3 points.

In 1980, President Carter led Ronald Reagan by 45-42 in a Gallup Poll on the eve of their late October debate. In that debate Reagan asked the public, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?", and Carter said the economy wasn't the main issue, nuclear weapons were -- he knew because his 12-year-old daughter Amy told him so. A week later Reagan won the election by 51 percent to 41.

vTC The two 1984 debates between President Reagan and Mondale were so boring that no one remembers any details about them. I don't, and I just re-read news accounts of them an hour before writing this. Gallup found viewers believed by a wide margin (19 percentage points) that Mondale won the first, and by a slight margin (3 points) that Reagan won the second.

But Reagan lost only 6 points of his 18-point lead in the polls after the first debate, and by election day he was back to a 17-point victory.

* * *

The 51-41 breakdown for 1980 above is not a typo. There was another candidate.

Thursday: Ross Perot.

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