Whether or not you think the debate last Thursday was fair depends on how you view the purpose of the debate process.
If you see as its purpose, to examine President Bush’s performance regarding events that have not gone perfectly, to give him a chance to explain and to give Senator Kerry an opportunity to criticize and state how he could do better, then you should have found the first debate fair.
If you see as its purpose, to let us learn what goals the President and the Senator have in mind for the next four years and to let us judge their capabilities to accomplish their goals (and to handle events that surprise them), then the first debate seemed unfair. Here is why.
The debate topic was foreign policy. The President has a foreign policy performance record. This means that there is a body of material that we can examine. We can ask and talk about what went well; we can ask and talk about what did not.
But, the Senator also has a foreign policy performance record, one that he accumulated during his twenty years of service in the Senate. Here, too, is a body of material that we can examine, comprising legislation that he offered, supported or opposed, what he said and how he voted. We can ask and talk about those of his actions that were helpful; and we can ask and talk about those that were not.
Had the debate followed the dynamic stated in the preceding two paragraphs, it would have been fairly conducted, and would have given us an opportunity to measure the two men based on their actions, as well as their debate pronouncements. That did not happen.
In view of the construct of the debate, the extent to which it would turn out to be fair was largely in the hands of Jim Lehrer, the moderator, and dependent mostly on the nature of his questions. All of the debate questions were composed by Lehrer. He also decided which questions to ask which candidate, and in which order.
Lehrer, of course, put questions to both Kerry and Bush about Bush’s performance regarding the safety of this country. To keep things even, the necessary analogue would have been questions from Lehrer to them both about Kerry’s performance in this area during his Senate tenure.
How did Lehrer do? What questions did he put to the candidates about Kerry’s senatorial foreign-policy performance? What did he ask about Kerry’s record regarding intelligence-program capabilities and funding, or American defense measures, or the cold-war nuclear freeze efforts that followed upon the 1993 World Trade Center attack on America?
But for the “voted for, before I voted against” characterization of his vote on Iraq and troop funding, Kerry faced not one question about his performance. And yet, who among us would not agree that a judgment about a candidate’s visions and future actions is far better reached when based on a review of his record of performance than on what he now might say. Lehrer’s questions (especially the ones he did not ask) deprived us of a debate that would have allowed us to use it to make that judgment.
Especially because of Kerry’s repeated emphasis on the necessity of broad coalitions, Lehrer could have allowed us to test the sincerity of that position by getting him to explain why he voted against the first Gulf War, where there was not only broad European, but also Arab participation. And, of course, Lehrer could have put it to Kerry to explain his justification for voting against funding the current war effort in Iraq.
To be sure, many, if not most supporters of the President believe and wish he had exhibited a better debating style. Despite the outcome of his past debates, he is not an accomplished debater, and it showed. But, think about the questions Lehrer asked, to wit:
< You said there was a miscalculation in Iraq. What was it and how did it happen?
< What colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?
< Mr. President, has Iraq been worth the cost in American lives – 10,052 – I mean 1,052, up to today? (The 1,052 was misleading; the combat cost was a bit over 800.)
< You’ve repeatedly accused President Bush of lying to the American people on Iraq. Give us some examples of the president being untruthful on Iraq?
The point is not that these were inappropriate questions. A skilled debater could have responded to Lehrer and Kerry in a manner that appeared less annoyed and defensive than did President Bush.
Rather, the point is that the structure and content of the debate, which put the President’s decisions and performance on trial, but not the Senator’s, transformed a process that should have allowed us to measure them both into one that was limited to accusations against President Bush. The public was shortchanged by Mr. Lehrer.