Let debate begin - and continue


Finally, it’s here. The first presidential debate will take place tonight at the University of Miami, and it’s not a moment too soon. Over the past couple of months, newspaper headlines of “Sen. Kerry attacks President Bush” and vice versa have grown tiresome.

Tonight, they go head to head in a clash of two seasoned politicians who, their opponents would have viewers believe, are undefeated in political debates.

Bush strategists reportedly considered only agreeing to two debates instead of the three proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, but then relented.

The president, it can be argued, would be better off debating twice because he is leading in the polls. The fewer debates, the less chance Kerry has of making up ground. Strategically, it made sense for Bush to agree to two debates. But, for voters and democracy, three times is better.

Unfortunately, some congressional incumbents and even an occasional challenger pick strategy over democracy. As The Hill’s Geoff Earle reported last week, several Senate incumbents are shying away from debates. Retiring Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) captured the conventional wisdom well when he said, “If you have a big lead, there’s nothing to be gained.”

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who is heavily favored to win this fall, came under fire for floating a proposal to debate his challenger, state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, in a daytime slot during the Columbus Day weekend. Critics said Bunning’s plan was geared toward ensuring that few Kentucky voters would tune in. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “Why draw a crowd for an underfunded opponent?”

Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama (D) agrees with McConnell and has refused to debate Alan Keyes (R) in a race that was over before it started. Meanwhile, in a rare move for a challenger, Tony Miller initially refused to debate Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) in June.

If congressional candidates refuse to debate, voters lose out — especially when the race is for a Senate seat that only gets onto the ballot once every six years. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and his challenger former Rep. John Thune have agreed to eight debates, including the one earlier this month on “Meet the Press.” Daschle and Thune don’t agree on much, but they should be commended for giving South Dakota voters many opportunities to see them square off.

Incumbents have so many built-in advantages and should not shy away from debating their challengers — no matter what the polls say. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has agreed to two debates with his long-shot opponent, Art Small. What are the chances that Small beats Grassley, a veteran debater and chairman of the Finance Committee? None, we’d say. But Grassley has given Small a chance to show what he’s made of, and that, surely, is something voters should know.

Others, particularly incumbents, should follow the lead of candidates Daschle and Grassley.

WHAT THE PAPERS SAY

Dayton Daily News

A group of liberal members of Congress was viewed by some as just so many nutballs when they asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to send observers to monitor the U.S. presidential elections this year.

One conservative columnist suggested, scornfully that even though the “United States is the greatest example of representative democracy the world has ever seen, some federal officials believe foreigners are more qualified to police our elections than our own countrymen.”

The Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana calls the whole notion “offensive.’”

What the critics aren’t acknowledging is that the George H.W. Bush administration committed the United States to another coalition of the willing back in 1990. The group of nations is called the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and it’s devoted, in part, to promoting democracy by making elections transparent.

The nations issued a standing invitation to observe each other’s elections. Just in the past several years, OSCE observers were invited to observe the French presidential elections (2002), as well as parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom (2003), Spain (2004) and the European Union (2004).

The OSCE also was present in Florida for the 2002 midterm elections and in California during the 2003 gubernatorial recall vote.

Thus, while Secretary-General Annan politely declined the congressional delegation’s request (saying it had to be made by the executive branch of a government), U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell responded favorably.

Under the circumstances, it’s hard to see how any of this could be seen as an insult. Inviting outsiders to observe our elections is a form of leading by example.

Americans who find something to be offended by here are trying too hard to be offended.
— Sept. 26 (Ohio)