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Kibitzers seek to mess with the presidential debates [Commentary]

One of the best features of our quadrennial presidential campaigns is the series of debates between the major party nominees, plus another between their running mates. Voters tune in by the millions and get a better look at them than they might at any number of staged political events, whether run by the parties or by news-media sponsors.

On the theory that if it's not broken, don't fix it, for the last six cycles the debates have been organized and conducted by a bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission was originally chaired by two former party national chairmen, Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Paul Kirk; Mr. Fahrenkopf still serves, while the Mr. Kirk was later was replaced by Mike McCurry, the press secretary of President Bill Clinton.

The debates have not been perfect, with usual wrangling between rival campaign managers over the number of confrontations, the formats, moderators, panelists and even whether the nominees should stand or sit stationary or be allowed to roam. By and large, though, the events have served the public well.

Now comes a group of kibitzers led by an academic at the University of Pennsylvania, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who heads the Annenberg Public Policy Center. While observing somewhat patronizingly that "we're not saying something is broken and we're trying to fix it," this group is setting out to do just that. The members include mostly partisan political operatives of past campaigns sprinkled with some new purveyors of the broad and unfiltered social media.

The debates began in 1960 with the memorable first face-off between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon that left the Republican contender shaken from his status as favorite. They endured a period of uncertainty before settling in. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson saw no reason to give his long shot challenger, Barry Goldwater, a place on the same stage with him.

In 1968 and 1972, Nixon took the same attitude toward a struggling Hubert Humphrey and then George McGovern, easily winning without debating. But in 1976 President Gerald Ford agreed to debate Jimmy Carter, to Mr. Ford's regret after a debate gaffe in which he said Poland was not under Soviet Union domination.

But Mr. Ford's willingness went a long way toward establishing the presidential debates as a staple, and they have been held in every election since then, to the point that no nominee would risk public dissatisfaction by ducking.

In 1988, the League of Women Voters bowed out as sponsor in the wake of squabbles over the debate arrangements between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Thereafter, the national party chairmen stepped in and took over, and the Commission on Presidential Debates has run them ever since.

That doesn't mean that there haven't been problems, with the campaign managers on each side hassling over details most beneficial to their nominees, which certainly will continue whatever changes may be made. The new group has questioned whether a television studio would be preferable to a college campus as the site — an insignificant issue.

Complaints of excluded third-party candidates will continue to be aired, though the vast majority of voters are interested in what the major party nominees, who have a real chance of being elected, have to say. If a third-party candidate generates enough support, he or she can be included, as Ross Perot was in 1992. But the thought of bringing in the often mindless blathering of the tweeter universe and the blogosphere to ask the questions boggles the mind.

Some legitimate issues may warrant review by the existing commission, such as whether a single moderator should continue to be used for all debates, although the most recent one, Jim Lehrer, performed admirably and fairly. There is some virtue too in having experienced and unbiased news-media reporters rather than television news celebrities ask the questions. And corporate sponsorship should be barred, replaced with individual voter or national party contributions, evenly split, and finding more clearly nonpartisan leadership.

But in all, the debate commission's track record, run by an experienced and even-handed staff headed by its first and only director, the able Janet Brown, warrants its continued existence. If the other kibitzers want to get their two cents in from the outside, like the rest of us, they can continue to try.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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