The Debate Over Debates Is Likely To Arise Again On Politics

The Baltimore Sun

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

May 6, 1993

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.