THIS IS, or so we are constantly told by partisans on both sides, the most important election of our lives -- at least. At the Republican convention last week, Vice President Cheney called it "one of the most important, not just in our lives, but in our history." You'd think, then, that both campaigns would be eager to see that voters get as much of a chance as possible to see the two candidates debate. The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored such encounters since 1988, has proposed a schedule of three 90-minute presidential debates (one on foreign policy, one on domestic issues and one a town-hall-style session with undecided voters) along with a vice presidential debate.
Democratic nominee John F. Kerry accepted the proposal in July. But even as the time for the first debate nears -- it's set for Sept. 30 in Miami -- the Bush campaign hasn't committed and may be trying to limit the number of presidential debates to two. "We look forward to these debates," Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "We look forward to having a debate about debates. We will, in an appropriate time, which is shortly, talk about our intended participation." Rather than debating about debates, President Bush should just say yes. Surely voters are entitled to at least the 41/2 hours of presidential debates the commission has proposed.
Such coyness and maneuvering over debates is a quadrennial sport, practiced with the greatest zest by the side that thinks it has the least to gain from such encounters. In 1996, President Bill Clinton, enjoying the advantage of incumbency and a substantial lead in the polls over Republican nominee Robert J. Dole, ducked out of the first scheduled debate with the flimsy excuse that a long-planned speech to the United Nations wouldn't give him enough time to prepare. Four years ago, Mr. Bush tried sidestepping all but one of the commission's debates, and he proposed two others ("Larry King Live" and "Meet the Press") that would have been shorter and would have drawn a far smaller audience than the commission debates, which are carried by all the networks. In the end, Mr. Bush's side caved -- and, as we recall, the debates didn't turn out all that badly for him.
The chairmen of the debate commission, former Republican National Committee chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and former Democratic National Committee chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., sent a letter yesterday to both campaigns asking them to meet to discuss debate plans. That should happen as soon as possible, and the Bush campaign ought to agree to the commission's proposal. If the campaigns' big guns (former secretary of state James A. Baker III for Mr. Bush, superlawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr. for Mr. Kerry) need something to haggle over, there's always the pitched battle over whether the candidates should be seated or standing.