Tonight at 9 p.m. marks the first of three
presidential debates between President Bush and Democratic
presidential candidate John Kerry. The debate will be held at the
University of Miami and will focus primarily on foreign policy.
Voters and nonvoters alike should tune in to watch each of the
debates, as they will certainly impact, to varying degrees, the
outcome of the November election.
The TV media’s portrayal of presidential debates has often
had an enormous impact on the fate of presidential elections. Poor
performance in the debates can often prove the proverbial nail in
the coffin for a struggling campaign. Or debates can be a watershed
— a crucial moment that can turn around an entire effort. For
example, the election in 1960 was decided on debate night, in which
a gaunt, haggard-looking Richard Nixon contrasted greatly with a
charismatic and handsome John Kennedy.
Still, many will undoubtedly look to the 2000 debates, which
featured much posturing and little adherence to facts, for proof as
to why not to watch this year’s debates. Unfortunately,
little is likely to change; last week both candidates came to a
mutual agreement concerning the format of the debates. The
agreement forbids candidates from asking each other direct
questions of any kind and from challenging each other with proposed
pledges. The town hall debate will require audience members to
screen their questions with the moderator and will prohibit
questioners deviating from their pre-approved questions.
Clearly, this agreement will detrimentally limit the amount of
clash and actual debate between the candidates. Though it helps
avoid potentially embarrassing and thereby election-changing
moments, these are the moments for which the purpose of the debates
becomes the most apparent. Yet even with this agreement, the
debate’s change in format still does not preclude the debates
from having an impact. With this format, the moderator will have
enormous responsibility for ensuring candidates truly stay on
topic, directly answer specific questions and respond to pointed
follow-up questions. Good moderators might help add substance and
spontaneity to the events.
For Kerry, under pressure to turn around a campaign that has
fallen behind, these debates are a critical opportunity. Bush is
also feeling the pressure of overcoming his father’s one-term
legacy and is determined not to let the debates expose his
weaknesses. Despite these limitations, it is possible that the
public might see the two candidates out of their shells, not just
simply regurgitating campaign rhetoric, but engaging their opponent
in unscripted debate about genuine campaign issues. Furthermore,
the debates offer voters a chance to see the candidates perform
under pressure, on equal ground, without the benefit of their
handlers and war chests.
With so much at stake on live television, it is possible that
the election, one of immense significance, could be decided on a
single night. A mere glance at the history points to this event as
having a critical role in the outcome of the November election.
Presidential debates are critical to a vibrant democracy by
introducing the candidates and their platforms to the voting
public. Everyone should take the time to watch each of the