Debate format leaves little room for debate ON POLITICS



ST. LOUIS -- The first three-man presidential debate may not have produced the breakthrough President Bush prayed for, the knockout Gov. Bill Clinton hoped for, or the revival Ross Perot reached for. But it did validate the argument by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates for a single moderator and no press panel.

It was not that the three panelists and moderator Jim Lehrer did not serve professionally and constructively to bring substance TC and illumination to the 90-minute exchange. They were uniformly good, with hardly any of the long-winded showboating that has too often characterized panelists' questioning in past debates.

The trouble was that with four people interrogating three candidates, and each having the right of reply or rebuttal, there was little continuity or depth of the sort that voters need to get a clear idea of what each of the candidates would actually do to cope with the nation's most pressing problems.

Every poll this fall indicates that voters are concerned overwhelmingly about these issues: jobs and the state of the economy. Those issues got intermittent attention from Bush, Clinton and Perot during the debate, but no in-depth exchange on what each specifically would do to improve the economy and the lot of the American worker and businessman.

Instead, there was a smorgasbord of topics: Clinton's Vietnam War protest, taxes, troops in Europe, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, post-Cold War reconversion, aid to the former Soviet republics, possible U.S. intervention in the former Yugoslavia, dealing with China, family values, legalization of drugs, health care, AIDS, and so on.

The format used was the one that the Bush campaign wanted, and it is not hard to see why. The resultant exchange was a debate in only the broadest sense. Even so, the president was put on the defensive by both Clinton and Perot over his first-term stewardship of the economy. Had they been able to sustain the discussion of the single topic of the economy for the full 90 minutes, with only a moderator refereeing, Bush would have taken a much more intensive hammering.

In the famed 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, there was an effort to concentrate on broad categories in at least two of them, on the economy and foreign policy. If Bush would have been at a disadvantage in one debate devoted entirely to the economy, he figured to have an advantage in the foreign-policy debate. But that didn't happen and won't under the agreement reached after Bush balked at the commission's single-moderator recommendation, which Clinton and Perot had accepted.

The Bush campaign did agree to that format for the vice-presidential debate, but if there is to be any breakthrough for the president it will have to come in the remaining two debates he will have with Clinton and Perot. And in each of them, the agreed-upon format minimizes the chances of a full-blown exchange of views in depth on righting the troubled economy.

On Thursday night in Richmond, Va., questions are to be asked by voters, with a moderator as traffic cop. While this format may appear to be the most democratic of all, in most cases when it has been used during presidential primaries and on the talk shows that have joined the political circuit this year, the result has been disappointing.

Earnest voters most often ask general questions that the candidates have heard dozens of times, and for which they have canned, self-serving answers at the ready. "What will you do about the economy?" is an invitation for a campaign speech. In a direct, lengthy exchange among the candidates, they would have to get to specifics on what they would do, how they would pay for it, and how they would cope with contesting interests.

The final presidential debate in East Lansing, Mich., next Monday night will be a mixed bag, one half with a panel and the other with a single moderator asking the questions.

Perot regained a bit of respectability with his snappy performance here. A sustained discussion of the economy could determine whether he will be a factor on Nov. 3 or not. But it's not likely to happen under the formats insisted upon by the president's protective debate negotiators.

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