LIKE most Americans, I tuned in last week to watch Vice President George Bush and Governor Michael S. Dukakis square off in the first of three presidential debates. Although I enjoyed watching Bush feebly defend his demagogic attacks on Dukakis' patriotism, I left highly skeptical of the value of these quadrennial exercises for the American voter.
Granted, for the candidates these debates are a highly effective, inexpensive way for them to hammer out their major themes and to paint their opponents as soft on crime, disingenuous or unpatriotic in the public eye. But does the highly rigid structure of these debates really help the American voter make a more informed choice over which candidates would make the better president? Maybe, but I doubt it.
After all, with candidates given only a minute to sum up their positions on such complex issues as arms control, the budget deficit, or the Middle East, the debates make simplistic slogans like "no new taxes," abortion is murder," and "I won't touch Social Security," seem acceptable. No candidate who actually hopes to win will dare say that he will raise taxes to bring down the budget deficit, or purposely bring up any other issue of substance. Despite professing sympathy to the needs of all Americans, candidates often seem to adopt the condescending attitude that by speaking in vague generalities, they'll con the living daylights out of them.
Moreover, under the current set-up neither the panelists nor the other candidate can stop his opponent in midstream and point out that what he just said was factually incorrect. As a result, Bush was able to duck a tough question asking which weapons systems he opposed by naming a few which the Pentagon has already scrapped. Theoretically, Dukakis could have done so on his own time, but it would have taken 10-15 seconds off the minute he had to tell us how he would make health care and housing affordable to all.
TOO often, it seems, the substance of what the candidates are saying gets ignored, while the one-liners, makeup, tone, self-assurance and gaffes of each of the candidates inevitably determine the outcome. In other words, the one with the best sound bites "wins."
Historians agree that John F. Kennedy "won" his 1960 debate with Richard Nixon not on substantive issues, but because Nixon showed up on national television looking pale and nervous. The 1976 debate between Ford and Carter is remembered, not for its arguments over the state of the economy or the proper U.S. role in world affairs, but rather for Ford's strange assertion that Poland was not under Soviet domination. A mere reassuring phrase from candidate Reagan, "there you go again," was enough to stave off an issue-oriented Carter attack in 1980.
At the end of all these debates, reporters inevitably swarm around the spokesmen for both campaigns to hear them say what they're paid to say--that their man won. The need for reporters and camera crews to convey the obviously highly partisan opinions of these campaign strategists to millions of Americans is dubious.
In the end, for all its harping on both candidates for negative campaigning and failing to address the pressing issues of the day, the media this year merely helped contribute to the superficial nature of the process by mocking Bush's goofiness and Dukakis' attempts to smile in articles, editorials, and news reports analyzing the debate.
OF course, it's easy to criticize the existing system of presidential debates without proposing any remedies. One idea that has been suggested, and which seems to make a lot more sense, is to give two or three political allies for each candidate a chance to grill the opposition.
Under such a system, Jesse Jackson could nail Bush on the Reagan Administration's attempts to gut the Voting Rights Act and to reduce federal grants for low-income students. Sam Nunn or Al Gore could specifically pinpoint wasteful defense systems and force Bush to explain how he would guard against another procurement mess in the Pentagon.
On the Republican side, Jack Kemp could ask Dukakis what he would do as president if, with aid to the contras cut off, the Sandinistas suddenly renege on their promises to abide by the Arias Plan, cracking down on all internal opposition. Bob Dole could demand that Dukakis explain what exactly "good jobs at good wages" means and how he would achieve such a goal without unleashing inflation.
AT the very least, the candidates should be allowed to question each other and be given more time to state their positions, so that they don't feel compelled to speak in vague truisms the way they do even now.
While elitists on both sides would probably argue that such an arrangement would bore the supposedly simpleminded American voter--a justification they have used before to limit the number of debates--the chances are that these voters would appreciate not being patronized. More likely than not, these same voters care enough about the plight of America's farmers and its homeless, the drug problem, the AIDS crisis and our ability to compete in the international marketplace to sit up and pay attention.