The secret story behind the debates!

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Sep 06, 2000 12:00 AM
The back-and-forth on the forensic encounters runs into layer after layer of contention, some of it embarrassing.

(1) Are we exploring the question of character? That seems to be the primary objective these days of Candidate Bush. On Day One, Bush sponsored a heavy-handed TV political commercial in which the voice-over lady professed her concern over the unreliability of Candidate Gore, right to the point of threatening to give up television. On Day Two, Bush struck again. He said Gore said yes, now he says no. Gore said he would debate Bush "any time, any place," and now Gore is refusing to accept a revised schedule featuring a proposed prime-time (NBC) version of Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" and a prime-time (CNN) version of "Larry King Live."

The trouble with using the Gore refusal as the gravamen of Gore's untrustworthiness is that a personal concern is toweringly self-evident. It is that Candidate Bush does not look forward to the Presidential Commission formula for these encounters, and is plausibly suspect of palavering his way around that point by suggesting other, more congenial forums that would reduce the size of the audience.

But (2), Gore has run into a different order of problems. He says that Bush's proposed schedule would have the effect of cutting millions of voters out of the loop. Why?

Here is the explanation. If a network gives up a commercial hour in order to broadcast the debate, that network is undergoing a sacrifice. How's that? Because (let's use round figures) 20 million people aren't going to forfeit an hour with football or "60 Minutes" in order to tune in on the presidential debate. If NBC shows the debate, featuring moderator Tim Russert, CBS and ABC aren't going to collapse their schedules to defer to a competitor.

But why can't we assume that the viewing public will tune in to the debate, forcing the hand of the network management? Because they won't; and this is an aspect of the controversy Mr. Gore is not willing to parse, because he doesn't want to get out there and say: The only way we can get the high figure of listeners to tune in is if we lock them into doing so by giving them no alternatives on the dial. He would not want to say that because it would suggest less than the kind of faith he wants to exhibit, faith in the curiosity and duty-mindedness of the American voting public.

(3) In 1992 in a Clinton-Bush debate, the three networks combined (plus those auxiliaries that also scheduled the debate) got 92 million viewers, which gives an idea of the potential audience (lock everybody in a room at night with one television set, and they'll listen to people who want to be president!). Contenders at these debates are moved either by reasoning that they will outperform the opposition, or that they don't want to face the music of declining to debate. In 1972 President Nixon declined to debate George McGovern, and there was obviously no mutiny in the streets, because he proceeded to win every state of the Union except for Massachusetts.

Prowess as a debater is an achievement of Al Gore for reasons earned and unearned. He is fast on his feet, resourceful and surgical. These skills are the product of intellect, wit and experience. But his primary asset is the organic formulation of the public question. On Labor Day he told his audiences that it all comes down to: The Democrats want to spend the surplus on health and education, the Republicans want to spend it on a gift for rich people.

I am a very experienced hand in public debate and I pass on my experience that Gore's Labor Day formulation is simply one more version of the usual polarization: Should the government be in favor of activism on behalf of the needy, or should the government be inert, yielding to private interests?

This is not a formulation a Republican can't ever hope to win -- after all, Reagan and Bush and Nixon won. But the odds tend to stack up on the side of the contender who wants "free" drugs for the elderly, rather than a return of surplus taxation to the rich. Gore has a stake in the size of the audience that is there to be persuaded to act, this November, in behalf of goodness and charity, rather than more money for the Rockefeller class.

Bush can't beg out, but he has the additional problem of an unsuccessful preparation of the potential voter to the implications of the Gore/Democratic/socialist polarizations. The undecided voter hasn't been sensitized to the Republican/conservative position on the imprudencies of welfarism, and Governor Bush reasonably calculates that he can't reliably take on this postgraduate training in a couple of hours of network TV.