A Better Way To Debate

October 13, 1992

On the morning after the first presidential debate, President Bush let it be known that if re-elected he will fire his economic first team -- the secretary of the Treasury, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Now whether you consider that the act of a bold, change-oriented leader or a confession of failure, it's news. It's important. But it wasn't in the debate.

The problem with the institution of debates is that unlike face-to-face conflicts among candidates, and unlike presidential press conferences where reporters occasionally will stick with one topic until it is thoroughly explored, there is little continuity, little thoroughness and little logical relationship between one set of questions and the next. Too many topics are addressed.

Perhaps tonight when the three vice presidential candidates meet, without a reporters panel, the public will get a fuller exploration of the few issues that are at the center of voters' concern. If so, then in the two remaining presidential debates, the moderator, panelists and audience should use the vice presidential debate as a model, rather than Sunday night's unfocused presidential debate.

Sober reappraisals of the Sunday debate, after 24 hours to reflect and a good night's sleep, seem to be mainly consistent with the instant analyses. No candidate lost any significant amount of support because of his answers or demeanor and none gained a lot. That is as it should be. Presidential elections should not turn on brief moments or fleeting impressions. Debates are an occasion for candidates to remind voters of their policy views and character traits, not introduce themselves.

Meanwhile, the questions of which candidate can best do something about the national debt, deficit and the economy in the next four years and can best lead the Western alliance in America's continued responsibilities as the world's last superpower need to be answered in more coherent detail than they were Sunday night.

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