Arguing the Debates

Bush will be on guard (for a change), and Kerry will be playing catch-up (as usual)

I already see a problem with the Kerry-Bush debates, which begin this Thursday between the two not-ready-for-prime-time players: Page four of the "Memorandum of Understanding" between the candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates specifically forbids "props." How's Bush even going to get past the security guards?

It doesn't matter that these two master debaters will be having more of a circle jerk than a real argument—critics like Open Debates point out that follow-up questions are restricted, for instance—or that the viewership for such events has declined since the '60s. (Bill Moyers covered some of this territory on his PBS show Now—thanks to colleague Dan Adkison for the tip.) Pundits keep saying that the debates will be crucial. Considering that so much of TV is "reality," that makes perverse sense.

And like those carefully managed "reality shows," these debates have a host of TV-only rules guaranteed to blandify everything, like this one: "The candidates may not ask each other direct questions, but may ask rhetorical questions." As for questions from the audience, which will be allowed on October 8, the moderator "shall develop, and describe to the campaigns, a method for selecting questions at random," but they can't be "inappropriate." So the moderators are under the thumb of this stultified process, too.

The October 8 debate is officially described in the memorandum as a "town hall." But the strict rules say that the "live audience" of 100 to 150 people are to be only those "who describe themselves as likely voters who are 'soft' Bush supporters or 'soft' Kerry supporters as to their 2004 presidential vote." One more thing:

The moderator shall ensure that an equal number of "soft" Bush supporters and "soft" Kerry supporters pose questions to the candidates.

Look for some hard questions. And the Gallup pollsters will pick the audience—after first clearing their methods with the two campaigns.

Ought to be exciting, huh? As for the first debate, this Thursday evening at 9, the scheduled competition looks more interesting: "Origins," on Nova, examines how life begins; CSI, on CBS, examines how life ends.

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