Newton Minow, who has had an insider's role in the modern Presidential Debates including tonight's event, looks at who wins the presidential debates in today's Chicago Tribune (reprinted below with permission). He told me just now that he's very pleased that the debates will, in fact, go forward.
But first, some background: Debating the debates - forum at Harvard on Sept 24, 2008 - webcast of Michael Dukakis (1988 presidential debater), Newton Minow (Commission on Presidential Debates), Craig LaMay (coauthor of Inside the Presidential Debates) and Ellen Hume, (MIT Center for Future Civic Media).
US News and World Report - Should the Presidential Debates include third parties? September 22, 2008 - Ralph Nader says Yes ; Newton Minow says No
How many third party candidates do you think there are this year? Read this and you'll see the problem.
With debate, public wins
By Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay
September 26, 2008
Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama
are scheduled to meet tonight at the University of Mississippi for the
first of their three televised debates. The presidential debates are
among the most-watched television programs in the world, up there with
the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics and the Super Bowl. Some 60 million
Americans will follow the debates on radio, television and the
Internet. Worldwide, another 60 million listeners, viewers and computer
users will join them.
Tonight's debate—we assume it will take place, though Sen. McCain has sought to postpone it—will debut a new format designed to get the candidates to talk directly to each other, rather than to the moderator. The 90-minute forum will be broken into segments, each devoted to a particular subject. This new format is a direct response to voter preferences and can only improve what are already the most genuine events of a campaign that is otherwise a carefully scripted and uninformative run of television news sound bites and (mostly negative) advertisements.
The televised debates are the only place in the modern campaign where voters get the opportunity to compare the candidates and their views and see them think on their feet. Yes, the candidates will anticipate questions and prepare answers in advance. Who would expect otherwise? This is the biggest contest on the American electoral stage.
And as with any big game, there is a back story. Here are a few things most Americans don't know about the debates, but are worth keeping in mind:
When Vice President Richard Nixon met Sen. John Kennedy in the 1960 debates, it was more than a television first. It was the first time ever that the nominees for the country's highest office had met in face-to-face debate. For more than a century and a half, candidates for president left that job to political surrogates.
There were no debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972 because federal law made televised presidential debates impossible. Until President Gerald Ford and Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter squared off in 1976, the "equal-time" law required anyone who sponsored a televised debate to invite every candidate for president to participate. Typically, more than 200 people register as candidates with the Federal Election Commission. The 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates happened only because Congress authorized a one-time exemption to the equal-time law. In 1976, the Federal Communications Commission and the courts reinterpreted the law, deciding that a debate was a "news event" exempt from the equal-time requirement.
It takes more than a change in the law to change a nation, and we Americans owe our tradition of televised presidential debates to two Republicans and one Democrat. When President Ford agreed to debate Gov. Carter, he ignored the political wisdom that an incumbent should never agree to share the stage with a challenger. Ford later credited his performance in the debates with his comeback—after trailing badly, he lost the election by a single percentage point. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan was ahead in the polls, but chose to debate Walter Mondale anyway. And in 1960, it was two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson who first proposed the idea of televised presidential debates. But for Stevenson, Nixon and Kennedy would never have debated and there would be no televised presidential debates today.
In most democratic countries, leader debates are still new or don't happen at all. In countries as varied in their democratic traditions as France, Israel and Brazil, incumbents can and often do refuse to debate their challengers. The British, often held up to us as the model for how to hold a proper election, have no debates between candidates for prime minister. When it comes to televised debates, the U.S. really is a model for the democratic world.
The presidential candidates do not choose the debate questions or the moderator. They know what the general topic of the evening will be, but that is all. Neither do the campaigns choose the dates, the places or the formats for the debates.
You are smarter than the pundits and political professionals. After you watch tonight's debate, turn off your television and avoid the spin that follows. Talk about the debate with your family, co-workers, friends, neighbors. Then go see what the pundits have to say, and whether you think they got it right. It is your judgment and your vote that counts, not theirs.
Finally, we confidently predict the winner of tonight's debate and those still to come: the American voter.
Newton N. Minow is a Chicago attorney and vice chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Craig L. LaMay is a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. They are the authors of "Inside the Presidential Debates."