Get On with the Debates

October 01, 1992

As George Bush at last acknowledges, it's time to get on with the debates. He and Bill Clinton have been jockeying for position for several weeks, with the Democratic nominee on the high ground until now. The president's surprise offer for four debates after weeks of sparring has brought the two sides close enough to bridge any differences quickly. It doesn't matter much whether the final compromises are negotiated through a bipartisan commission or directly between the candidates' staffs. What matters is an end to the posturing.

Neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Clinton has given the voters much solid information about how he would deal as president with some of the staggering problems facing this country. Both brandish purported plans to deal with the mounting federal deficit, the economic slump, the financing of an equitable health care plan and so forth. But both have been assiduous in sidestepping specific details.

In a debate, the fancy footwork can be minimized, either by a direct exchange between the candidates or by journalists asking follow-up questions. Since both candidates are spending $75 million of taxpayers' money in their campaigns, they owe the voters straightforward answers.

Governor Clinton has been saying all along that he would debate his Republican opponent according to the schedule devised by the commission created in 1988 by the two national parties. But President Bush has balked at dealing with the commission, for reasons that are not entirely clear. In part it was plainly a reluctance to face Mr. Clinton as the commission proposed, in a head-to-head exchange without journalist questioners. Now that the final month of the campaign approaches with Mr. Bush still trailing, the confrontation becomes more appealing. The underdog almost always is the more anxious for a debate, if only because he has less to lose from a poor performance.

Now that President Bush has proposed two debates in the format he wanted, with a panel of journalists questioning each candidate, and two in the head-to-head format Governor Clinton wants, the major obstacle has been cleared. Avoiding scheduling conflicts with baseball's post-season play is a side issue. Any hour in prime time is going to conflict with someone's favorite program. Let's get on with the debates, the sooner the better.

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