WASHINGTON -- Every four years, a staple of the presidential campaign is the debate over debates -- whether they should be held and if so, how many, when and in what format. And although the debates of 1992 were a big hit with voters, the chances are the debate over debates will take place again in 1996.
That much seems clear based on a symposium conducted by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the non-partisan body that ran the 1988 and 1992 debates with professionalism and polish.
A spokesman for the 1992 Ross Perot campaign, Clay Mulford, somewhat reluctantly endorsed a legislative proposal to institutionalize the debates by requiring participation as a condition of receiving federal funds under the campaign finance reform laws. While "philosophically" believing that "you want to keep power in the hands of the players" (the candidates) in formulating the debates, Mulford said, it might be necessary to take such a step to commit the candidates. Perot himself did not take federal funds in 1992 and did not have to have his arm twisted to debate.
But Beverly Lindsey of the Bill Clinton campaign and Bobby Burchfield of the George Bush campaign that did take the money resisted the idea of institutionalizing the debates by law or otherwise.
They argued that the "dynamics" in 1996 cannot now be predicted and would be the determining factor in holding them then. Translation: It depends on whether your candidate is ahead or behind, on whether he or she needs the debates and if so, how many and what kind.
Some academics who conducted focus groups under the commission's aegis reported that voters had strong feelings about the "ownership" of the debates. They complained that the candidates and the news media acted too much as if the debates belonged to them rather than to the public, who looked to the confrontations as critical opportunities to evaluate the candidates.
Based on what Burchfield and Lindsey had to say at the symposium, that view regarding the candidates certainly seems valid. In chewing over last year's debate over debates between their two campaigns, each demonstrated a primary concern not for the debates themselves as an institution but for protecting their candidate's best interests.
It has ever been thus, and especially so in the last three presidential election cycles in which Bush de facto campaign manager and debate negotiator James A. Baker III has been involved. As Frank Fahrenkopf, the former GOP chairman and commission co-chairman, most candidly observed, Baker felt that in his negotiations with the Mondale (1984) and Dukakis (1988) campaigns, he "had cleaned their clocks and . . . hoped (he) could do it again" in 1992, working through Bush's negotiator Bob Teeter, Burchfield and others.
In the early summer of 1992, the commission announced plans for three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate and, later, selected sites. The Clinton campaign immediately accepted -- not surprisingly, since Clinton was running third in the polls at the time. The Bush campaign later countered with a demand to sit down with the Clinton campaign to work everything out, bypassing the commission. That wasn't surprising either, given Baker's insistence on negotiating directly.
The Clinton campaign playing the white hat, insisted that all talks be held through the commission as a way of institutionalizing it. The Bush campaign refused, and it was a development on the campaign trail that helped break the logjam. Voters dressed in chicken suits began showing up at Bush's rallies, taunting him on his failure to debate. Bush, Burchfield confessed at the symposium, "paid a heavy price" in public opinion and finally made a counterproposal that led to the eventual 1992 debates.
The commission, which endured much frustration along the way, is persisting in trying to nail down the candidates on debates well in advance of the fall campaign.
The commission next time may avoid that pitfall by simply setting dates for early agreement and then letting the campaigns hold a debate on debate formats. The bottom line, however, is that campaigns still see themselves, and not the voters, as the "owners" of presidential debates, to be used in their interests.