In 1987, leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties formed the Commission on Presidential Debates. They had two goals in mind:
To make it unthinkable for any major party candidate to try to avoid debating.
To limit the quadrennial hassling over sites, dates and formats.
The commission has succeeded on goal one, failed on goal two. It also hasn't figured out how to handle third-party candidates.
In 1992, it let Ross Perot in without saying what the rules were. Four years later, it kept him out because he didn't have "a realistic chance" of winning. Now the standard for inclusion is 15 percent in the polls, effectively barring both Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan.
All of which explains why, once again, we've entered the post-convention debate about debates.
This is a system in need of repair, and I have a few ideas. But first, let's review where we are.
Last January, the commission announced a schedule of three presidential and one vice-presidential encounters, all set for October. The announcement had a ring of finality about it. But as has been the case ever since the commission's birth, it was merely the starting point.
Vice President Gore agreed to the commission's terms and conditions almost immediately. That's typical. The trailing candidate (which he was at the time) wants all the exposure he can get. And that's especially true for Gore, who's counting on the debates to show how much more in command of the issues he is than his less-experienced Republican rival.
Bush was silent. That's typical as well. The leader in the race always hesitates, viewing debates with suspicion, seeing them as opportunities for missteps. As a rule, he looks for a way to do as few as possible, and often he succeeds.
In 1984, 1988 and 1996, for instance, there were only two presidential debates, not the three the commission wanted. The reason? The front-runners, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, weren't willing to do any more.
How that dynamic plays out this year is harder to figure, now that there is no front-runner. The current state of affairs is nothing if not confusing.
During the Democratic convention, Bush said he wanted three presidential debates (and two vice-presidential) but not necessarily those proposed by the commission. He's never explained why he took this stance. Since then, Gore had accused him of trying to avoid the commission's prime-time, major-network slots in favor of settings in which the audience would be smaller and formats in which the risk of a stumble would be low.
The nature and number of this year's debates will be determined through negotiation and litigation, although history suggests it's unlikely Buchanan and Nader will be able to use the courts to force their way in.
Here's what I'd like to see:
At least three presidential debates, including one in September, before the Olympics start. That would remind voters that there is an election coming up and avoid a glut of debates during the first two weeks of October, which is what the commission has scheduled.
One debate in which all the candidates with national ballot-access get their chance, not just Nader and Buchanan but maybe Libertarian Harry Browne as well. There's no reason to treat them as equals to Bush and Gore. There's no reason to ignore them, either.
In the long-run, structural changes are necessary:
Revamp the privately funded commission to make it truly nonpartisan, as opposed to bipartisan, and give it both official status and public money.
Establish permanent criteria for third-party candidates. Five percent in the polls sounds about right.
Require participation in the debates, on the terms set by the commission, for any candidate who accepts federal matching funds.
With those changes, there may come a day when we can skip the debate about debates and move directly to the dialogue that matters.
Larry Eichel is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.