Debating The Debates

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By CBSNews.com's Jarrett Murphy

The most powerful man in the world and the person running to replace him will not be allowed to bring charts to their debate on Thursday. They cannot ask each other questions or propose pledges. They may not challenge one another to additional debates.

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry may, however, "take notes during the debate on the size, color and type of paper each prefers and using the type of pen or pencil that each prefers." That's according to the rules set out in a memorandum signed by both presidential campaigns to govern the four debates that may well decide the 2004 election.

The rules cover everything from the sublime (neither candidate can use a device "to create an impression of elevated height") to the substantive (if audience members at the town hall debate ask a question different from the one approved by the moderator, their microphone could be cut off). And they are why some critics say the way debates are run these days is debatable.

"You're really not watching a debate. You're watching a glorified, bipartisan press conference," said George Farah, an advocate for debate reform and author of "No Debate," a book critical of modern debates.

The 2004 debates are the fifth set of sessions overseen by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a group started by the respective heads of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, the onetime Democratic and GOP chairmen, still chair the debate commission, but Fahrenkopf, in an interview, said the parties have no control over the body.

The commission was launched after the 1984 election, in which the League of Woman Voters ran debates as they had in 1976 and 1980. The campaigns of Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan shot down more than 90 reporters whom the League suggested for the debate panel. According to Fahrenkopf, that dispute illustrated the need for change.

Two independent studies conducted after the 1984 election recommended "that an independent body be created that exists for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to conduct general election debates every four years," he said.

When the campaigns of George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis agreed in 1988 to debate rules that, among other things, prohibited their questioning one another and put the commission in charge of two of three debates, the League withdrew its sponsorship for the meeting in Los Angeles.

Fahrenkopf claims the League pulled out because "they didn't have the money to finance what they were going to do in Los Angeles." But the League claimed a more substantive objection.

"We have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public," League president Nancy Neuman said at the time. "The candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions."

Critics today voice the same complaints about the current debate set-up, which is outlined in a 32-page memorandum negotiated by the Bush and Kerry campaigns with the commission's input.

In addition to the previously mentioned restrictions, the rules also limit the amount of time for discussion. A candidate who is asked a question has two minutes to answer; his opponent then has 90 seconds to respond. Then it is up to the moderator to decide whether discussion can continue.

In the "town hall" style debate, audience members cannot ask questions that haven't been approved in advance and cannot ask follow-up questions. The rules, said Farah, create "a sort of sanitized debate format in which the candidates cannot talk to each other."

The restrictions on candidates are compounded, Farah said, by the move to a single moderator format, rather than allowing questions from a panel of journalists.

Panelists once included such diverse voices as conservative Fred Barnes and pioneering black journalist Robert Maynard. But in the past two cycles, PBS' Jim Lehrer has moderated six of the seven debates on his own. Except in the town hall debates, the questions Lehrer asks, he has said, are his alone.

A spokesman for the PBS NewsHour said Lehrer would not speak to the media prior to the debates.

Fahrenkopf said the move to a single moderator was intended to promote follow-up questions. Reporters on panels would rather ask a question of their own than a follow-up question, Fahrenkopf said, even when a follow-up is warranted.

A desire to get a diversity of voices led the commission to recommend different moderators for each of this year's four debates, Fahrenkopf said.

The debates' funding is also a target for critics. Unable to take money from the parties or the candidates, the debate commission has a number of corporate underwriters, from American Airlines to JetBlue Airways.

"The people running the corporations know that giving to the debate commission is kind of giving to two parties simultaneously," Farah said. "They show up at parties afterwards and rub elbows with the campaign managers."

According to IRS records, the commission received $5 million in donations in 2000 and about $2.3 million in 1996. Smaller amounts are recorded in the non-presidential election years. While the names of the contributors are blocked out, records show that three entities gave $500,000 each in 1996 alone.

"These people get nothing," Fahrenkopf said, insisting he is comfortable with the corporate role.

In addition to their concerns about how debates are run and funded, critics also oppose the exclusion of third party candidates.

While Ross Perot and his Reform Party running mate Admiral James Stockdale appeared in the 1992 debates, Ralph Nader was barred not only from participating in the 2000 debates but also from even entering the events.

The commission says it applies an objective formula to decide whether candidates can participate: In addition to being on enough ballots to be eligible to win the presidency, they must attain an average of 15 percent support in five national polls.

The Federal Election Commission dismissed complaints from Nader, Pat Buchanan and other third party candidates about their exclusion from the 2000 debates. In August, a federal district judge ordered that the FEC reinvestigate those complaints.

"We're always sued. We're sued every cycle," said Fahrenkopf, who argues that complaints about the role of major party candidates in shaping debates fail to realize that debating is a voluntary activity.

"There's nothing that says these people have to debate. There's no rule that they have to debate," he said.

Farah does see some progress. For one thing, this year marks the first time that the campaigns have released their debate agreement to the public. Another plus is that the campaigns accepted the commission's proposal of four different moderators.
By Jarrett Murphy