The cast of every Presidential election traditionally includes at least one hired genius, a role currently played by Karl Rove, the chief consultant to the Bush campaign. Having guided his candidate to the Republican nomination with no more than a name, a slogan and $75 million, Mr. Rove must be a brilliant man indeed. And now the clever consultant has done his client the greatest service of all, with a ploy that may rescue George W. Bush from the terrifying prospect of three uninterrupted 90-minute debates, televised in prime time on all channels before a potential audience of 100 million citizens or more.
Avoiding an audience of that size and scope was clearly the motive behind Mr. Bush’s sudden announcement that he will skip the first two encounters scheduled by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates in favor of talk-show appearances with Larry King of CNN and Tim Russert of NBC. By arguing that Al Gore already accepted the King and Russert offers earlier this year, the Bush camp now insists that it can dictate terms, choose its favorites among several dozen debate venues and impose its preferences on the Democrat, who will risk dishonor if he doesn’t show up.
Until a few days ago, the Republican approach could best be described as an embarrassing stall. This may have been a con game, slowly unfolded by Mr. Rove to lower expectations of George W. Bush’s forensic prowess still further (if that is conceivable). Yet while Mr. Bush himself acknowledged more than once that debates are “a very important part of the process,” he acted as if he hoped to avoid them altogether.
Or at least to get away with having to participate in no more than one real debate. That is surely why Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove rejected the proposal by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen these quadrennial encounters for the past dozen years and which was created to put an end to evasion and gamesmanship.
Mr. Bush’s father participated in the commission’s debates in both 1988 and 1992. Uncomfortable as he obviously was, the elder Bush did his duty without trying to sneak away to a more comfortable seat across from a friendly talk-show host.
Dubya’s dilatory conduct makes for an unflattering contrast with his old man. There was nothing Presidential about his hastily arranged press conference on Labor Day when, in announcing his non-negotiable position on the debates, he gave off an unmistakable whiff of fear. No doubt he worries over any extended discussion of policy without the assistance of an electronic prompter. The presence of television hosts who abhor dead air may make him feel slightly more secure, but he still has ample reason to dread any confrontation with his more articulate and knowledgeable opponent.
To mention his most obvious problem first, the Texas governor has yet fully to master his native language, a shortcoming that is only highlighted by his degrees from Andover, Yale and Harvard and his campaign’s singular emphasis on education and literacy. Every time he ventures unscripted onto a stage with his opponent, he will risk uttering another of his comic malapropisms. Voters are willing to tolerate quite a few gaffes in grammar and usage by politicians; ultimately, however, they may hesitate to elect a President who doesn’t speak English as well as many foreign leaders.
Even if he does manage to express himself adequately, Mr. Bush will find it difficult to divert attention from policy to personalities. His campaign’s recent personal attack on the Vice President has stripped away the thin veneer of Reaganesque jauntiness that concealed his own profound weaknesses. Sooner or later, regardless of where and when they meet, he will have to debate the issues. Mr. Bush says he is eagerly looking forward to that moment-but he still looks as if he wants to run away.
Although Mr. Gore immediately rejected the abrupt Bush ultimatum, he may ultimately find himself boxed into debating on the Texan’s terms. He shouldn’t prolong this debate over debating much longer, because he did promise to meet the Republican anywhere and at any time, and because the public’s patience with this matter will quickly wear thin. Certainly the Democrat should show up for the final scheduled debate in St. Louis, even if the two campaigns cannot reach agreement on another date before then.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove clearly hope that Mr. Gore will continue bickering with them while the clock runs out. He shouldn’t let them get away with that. The Democrat can turn the tables on them by accepting the Russert and King invitations again-and then daring the frightened Republican to accept two more dates chosen by the commission. It wouldn’t be very Texan of him to back away from that kind of challenge, would it?