- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

Now that the parties have nominated their presidential and vice presidential candidates, it's time to debate the debates. Few aspects of a presidential campaign are more political than the negotiations between the standard-bearers about the rules governing the debates, which have become a fixture in America's quadrennial presidential elections since Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter squared off against President Gerald Ford three times in 1976. Nevertheless, the response of Vice President Al Gore and of the Commission on Presidential Debates to Republican nominee George W. Bush's debate proposals have been self-serving in the extreme.

While the Commission on Presidential Debates has been sponsoring the events since the 1988 election, nowhere is it written in stone that it must be the only sponsor. The Bush and Gore campaigns have received more than 50 invitations to debate from news media and other potential sponsors independent of the debate commission. The Texas governor, who has committed himself to three debates with Mr. Gore, wants to explore those options in addition to considering the three presidential debates scheduled by the commission for Oct. 3 in Boston, Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Oct. 17 in St. Louis. Moreover, the Bush campaign has offered to participate in two vice presidential debates. Together, the five debates would represent the most presidential and vice presidential debates in modern American political history.

Janet Brown, the executive director of the debate commission, indignantly reacted to Mr. Bush's exploratory position by telling the New York Times her organization was hardly inclined to make significant compromises. "Our proposal is the result of two and a half years' worth of deliberations and planning on dates, formats and venues," she told the Times. "And I don't believe it's possible for the campaigns to improve upon it." Well, that is her opinion, to which she is entitled. And Mr. Bush is entitled to tell the commission, which would, by the way, be more aptly named the Commission on Joint News Conferences for Major Party Presidential Candidates, to take a hike. It is worth recalling that the 1992 presidential candidates appropriately haggled over the details of the commission's debates for weeks before reaching compromises on formats and venues on Oct. 3 of that year.

For his part, Mr. Gore has been accepting virtually every non-commission debate invitation, including an offer from the conservative legal foundation Judicial Watch to debate the topic, "How to Restore Ethics to Government." Notably, however, the acceptance letter to Judicial Watch from the Gore campaign mentioned an interest in debating nearly every possible topic "the economy, health care, education, Social Security and Medicare, international affairs" except the topic proposed.

Whether Mr. Gore or the debate commission likes it or not, the details of the debates will be the product of political negotiation, as they have been in the past and as they deserve to be today. They ought to quit whining and posturing and commence negotiations.

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