These things are always more show business than actual debate, but this year there's a new wrinkle — one that isn't covered by makeup. The candidates have decided on the rules, and there are more rules than ever. Having them decide on the rules is a little ridiculous. It would be like players on a World Series team deciding on the rules for the Series, or a criminal defendant deciding what evidence may be admitted, or a presidential candidate having his brother as the governor of the state that could swing a contested election. It's too much of an "inside job."
As they negotiated these rules, the big thing the Democrats wanted was to have three debates instead of two. The big thing the Republicans wanted was, understandably, a chance to make their guy look as good as possible. So, the Republicans gave in on the number of debates, and the Democrats gave in on some interesting details. Apparently, the Republicans were afraid that the taller Kerry would make Mr. Bush look too short. So, they insisted that the lecterns be a certain height and be farther apart so Kerry wouldn't be looking down on President Bush. At the same time, the rules specifically prohibit either candidate from using "any device to make them look taller." What were they afraid of, that George W. Bush was going to come in on stilts?
There is other minutia as well in the 32-page negotiated agreement. (If people had put this much energy into negotiating foreign policy, the war in Iraq could probably have been avoided). The debaters cannot use any "props." I guess both candidates had to cancel those puppets they ordered. They can use any kind of pen or pencil to take notes, but these writing implements must be given to the debate staff before the debate begins. That was probably to eliminate them bringing those combination pen/squirt guns.
The audience will see the warning lights when the speaker is getting close to the end of his allotted time. This is considered a concession to the Republicans who hope it might embarrass the habitually long-winded Kerry. One Democratic strategist found this "undignified," and "like a game show." No kidding. This is a game show.
It's actually more of a "reality" game show, but unlike the real ones, there aren't any consequences if the players mess up. What's going to happen if they break one of the rules? What are they going to do to President Bush if he wants to stand on his tiptoes when he speaks? How are they going to punish Kerry if he removes a fold-up secret recipe for ketchup? That's one of the big failings of the ridiculous rules agreement — it has no teeth. No matter what they do, Mr. Bush and Kerry are not going to have to eat bugs or climb a mountain blindfolded or switch families with each other. Haven't their advisors learned that that's the kind of television people like these days?
The rules also eliminate all chances for spontaneity — which is, of course, their goal. Candidates are not allowed to ask each other questions. Too bad. Wouldn't you like to see them grill each other?, so we won't see the other guy yawning, checking his watch, or making faces at his opponent. Why not? What's wrong with seeing how they react to each other? Then there's the Big One: Other than the insincere handshake before the debate begins, the candidates are not allowed to touch each other.
Where did that come from? Who was worried that they would touch each other during the debate? Did someone actually fear that one of them would walk over and punch the other guy? If so, how disappointing that they've eliminated that possibility. That's something America would watch — even if it were on Pay TV. In fact, instead of having debates, maybe they really should just have a fistfight. Both men are macho, athletic types, so neither would back down. I say, if they want to box each other, let them. After all, they've been wrestling each other in the mud for months.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver