A Sorry Campaign
No candidate would dream of telling American voters that they would have to get used to doing everything his way. But that is the unwritten platform on which George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis are running for President this year.
What makes that obvious is the difficulty of arranging a series of debates to give voters some relief from the carefully staged television miniseries that passes, day in and day out, for a modern campaign for President. It is as though the prize was an Emmy for best direction and best performance instead of an office in the White House and the immense power that comes with it.
Two debates are not enough when the stakes are that high--not so much for the candidates but for the people whom they would lead. But, in the interest not of the voters so much as of the candidates, two are the maximum for now. Bush’s staff seems to think that he has more to lose than to gain from a debate. Dukakis’ staff wants debates on any terms, and so has accepted the Bush take-it-or-leave-it position.
Then there is the matter of timing. The Bush staff finds that the vice president’s busy schedule will permit him to show up for televised debates only between Sept. 25 and Oct. 17. It turns out that one or more of the networks will be broadcasting the Olympic Games from South Korea or the World Series and the playoffs that lead up to the series every night in that block of dates except one.
Political analysts say that there also is a game going on here, with Bush pretending to be afraid of Dukakis’ skills as a debater so that, when and if any debates are held, people will expect more of Dukakis and less of Bush. Nobody bothers to explain how it is that a man who is worried about debating Dukakis would have no trouble standing up to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev. This is just a question that might cross the mind of some voter, and voters are not yet included in the planning for the 1988 campaign.
And so the candidates follow directions, posing at least once a day with a telegenic backdrop--now a classroom to emphasize education, now a ship to emphasize defense--and say something catchy that will make the network news that night.
The worst of it is that televised debates themselves have not been especially dazzling in their ability to enlighten viewers and voters over the years, but anything would be better than what is offered in 1988.
Nobody can blame the candidates for wanting to win. But nobody can respect them for wanting to win so badly that they would deny Americans at least a glimpse of debate on vital issues. The sorry state of the campaign so far is all the more irksome because both candidates set standards in their acceptance speeches that they have not met since.