WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the best evidence that presidential-election debates have now become institutionalized came the other day. When the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced its plans for the 1996 campaign at a press conference, not a single question was asked about how the commission could be sure the major-party nominees would participate.
It was not ever thus. After the four presidential debates in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, in which Nixon was seen to have lost his reputation as the more experienced contender, three presidential elections went by without such confrontations. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson decided they weren't to his advantage against Barry Goldwater, and 1968 and 1972, the once-bitten Nixon made the same decision in his races against Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern.
In 1976, when President Gerald Ford agreed to debate Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, it was generally assumed that the incumbent was willing only because he was trailing in the polls. In the second of three debates, Ford committed a gaffe that stalled his campaign, stating in response to a question that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." The lesson widely taken from that experience was that it was foolhardy for any incumbent to debate, and give nationwide television visibility to a lesser-known challenger.
In 1980, however, Carter took on challenger Ronald Reagan, again at the incumbent's expense. Reagan's closing question to voters -- "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" -- summed up the electorate's discontent, contributing to Carter's defeat. In 1984, Reagan was so far ahead of challenger Walter Mondale in the polls that debating was no real risk for him, so he agreed.
In 1988, without an incumbent running, George Bush and Michael Dukakis after much wrangling agreed to debate. This time it was Dukakis who was wounded, with a stiff, impersonal reply to a question about whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife were "raped and murdered."
By 1992, voters had come to expect presidential debates and a candidate dodged them at his peril. When President Bush tried to do so, hecklers dressed as chickens appeared at Bush speeches. Trailing in the polls, "Chicken George," as the signs called him, finally relented -- again to the incumbent's chagrin. Bill Clinton clearly bested him in a town-meeting format that both camps agreed sealed the incumbent's doom.
Although the commission has confidently announced its plans for three presidential and one vice-presidential debates next year, it doesn't mean that the candidates won't again play games over such matters as dates, formats and questioners. But as President Bush found out in 1992, an incumbent -- indeed, any candidate -- today risks strong public disapproval if he doesn't debate.
Once again, the commission may be faced with a decision about broadening the debates to one or more independent or third-party candidates, such as Ross Perot was in 1992 and he or someone else could be again in his drive to create a new party. The commission has produced criteria for qualifying other candidates based on whether they "have a realistic chance of being elected" that "need not be overwhelming, but . . . must be more than theoretical."
These include "placement on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical chance of obtaining an electoral-college majority, organization in a majority of congressional districts in those states [and] eligibility for [federal] matching funds . . . or other demonstration of the ability to fund a national campaign."
Strength in public-opinion polls also will be assessed, but with no specific percentage of support required, along with the scope of news coverage and the opinions of political writers and political scientists. If an independent or new-party candidate's support is seen to be waning or growing during the debate period, he may be dropped or added to the debates.
All this is going forward on the strong assumption that the leading candidates will agree to debate. The White House says President Clinton "fully expects to participate in commission-sponsored debates" but it's too early to commit to specifics. It's unlikely he or any other candidate will want to invite hecklers dressed as chickens haunting him on the campaign trail. Thus, presidential debates at last appear to be an election-year fixture.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.