IT'S FASHIONABLE to denigrate the presidential debates as dueling canned speeches, not the rough-and-tumble of "real debate." Debate-bashing, indeed, may be nearly as popular as convention-bashing. "Presidential debates are to real debates as processed cheese is to cheese," George F. Will wrote on the opposite page the day of the first debate. It was a great line, but even processed cheese has its uses. Political conventions may not be the suspense-filled affairs of yesteryear, but they still give voters an unfiltered look at the nominees' messages -- or lack thereof. Similarly, modern presidential debates may not be television's answer to those of Lincoln-Douglas, but they, even more than conventions, serve a critical role in helping voters assess the choice before them.
One of the achievements of the 2004 debates is the degree to which the debates have become institutionalized; they're a ritual that even an incumbent president, even one ahead in the polls, is bound to endure. It wasn't without the usual struggle, but the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates essentially called the shots this year. The debates took place on the dates the commission set, at the venues it chose, in the format it wanted and with the moderators it selected. The only things that changed were switching the domestic issues debate from the first encounter to the third, and having the nominees use lecterns rather than be seated, as the commission preferred. Having one debate each on foreign and domestic affairs was a valuable innovation, and the town hall format once again proved its usefulness.
The series of three presidential debates that began Sept. 30 and ended Wednesday gave voters the chance to see the two contenders side by side, to assess not only their answers on discrete policy matters but also the broader workings of their minds. True, much of what the candidates spout is rehearsed, but you can look at it as a canned speech or as the chance for viewers to hear candidates on the issues. And this time around, at least, it seemed as if the supposedly killer sound bites -- Sen. John F. Kerry invoking Tony Soprano on Mr. Bush and fiscal responsibility, President Bush placing his opponent on "the far left bank" -- fell pretty flat: Debate watchers have become sophisticated enough to discount the scripted one-liner.
It's true, too, that the supposed "winner" of the debate can be determined by seemingly trivial or cosmetic matters, such as the first President Bush glancing at his watch in 1992, Al Gore's sighs four years ago, the current president's evident exasperation at the first debate this year, or even the notion of who "looks presidential." On another level, though, these episodes were important because they encapsulated, for many voters, flaws with the candidate that transcended the incidents themselves.
"No matter what protective measures the campaigns take, a televised debate cannot be completely domesticated," Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder wrote in 2000. "At a time when the race for the White House has become ever more sanitized and risk-averse, presidential debates represent a rare walk on the wild side." And for those pining for the days of Lincoln-Douglas, consider this: The two men held seven three-hour marathons, with speeches that lasted as long as an hour and a half. Doesn't make a two-minute limit seem all that bad after all.