|DEBATING THE DEBATES|
September 4, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: Now, debating the debates. Governor Bush proposed yesterday that he and Vice President Gore have three prime-time debates: One next week on NBC, one on CNN, and one sponsored by the bipartisan commission that has managed the general election presidential debates since 1988. The commission earlier this year had proposed three presidential debates in October to be broadcast on all the major networks and over cable news outlets. The Vice President rejected the Bush alternative debate plan. He spoke this morning on ABC.
VICE PRESIDENT GORE: At least since 1988, this bipartisan commission with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan as the honorary co-chairs have put forward a bipartisan formula for three 90-minute debates, not just on one network, but universally broadcast, on all of the outlets. So that 100 million or more see them and the American people have the best chance to make a judgment about the future course of our democracy. I'm happy to accept all the other debate offers if and when the commission debates are accepted. That's the prerequisite, because that's what's best for the American people.
RAY SUAREZ: Governor Bush reacted to the Vice President's rebuff at a Labor Day rally in Naperville, Illinois.
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: My opponent said he would debate me any place -- any time -- anywhere. I said, "fine. Why don't we just show up at NBC with Mr. Russert as a moderator. Or why don't we just show up at Larry King and discuss our differences? Why don't we stand up and show the clear difference of opinion?". But no, all of a sudden the words about any time, anywhere, don't mean anything. It's time to get some plain-spoken folks in Washington, DC.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, more from the two campaigns on the debates. Mindy Tucker is Governor Bush's press secretary, and Doug Hattaway is Vice President Gore's national spokesman. Doug Hattaway, let me start with you. You yew just heard the governor laying it out. The Vice President had signaled his willingness to debate. The governor proposed three debates. The Vice President said, "well, maybe not." What's going on?
DOUG HATTAWAY: I think the problem with Governor Bush's proposal is that its design, despite what he said about wanting to have more people watch these debates than have watched debates in the past, he's put out a proposal that would leave out tens of millions of people. The Larry King debate, for example, which Al Gore would be happy to do in addition to the presidential commission debates, 32 some million families in this country don't get cable TV. I wonder how many of those families don't have prescription drug coverage or don't have health insurance for their families. These are very important issues to those people. They deserve to be able to hear the presidential debates. They would not be able to under George Bush's plan.
We think that the commission proposal, which would guarantee coverage by all the networks, plus the cable networks, would provide the maximum number of people, the opportunity to see the debates. And that's what it's all about. It's not about George Bush and Al Gore and playing gotcha. It's about providing an opportunity for the most people to hear what the two candidates have to say about the issues that affect their lives. So we're happy to do the other debates in addition to the commissioned debates. That's the bottom line.
RAY SUAREZ: Mindy Tucker, just a moment ago you heard Vice President Gore talking about the near universal availability of the big broadcast networks and how the commission has worked with them over the years to make sure it's piped across all the networks. Why this counterproposal? What's involved in it?
MINDY TUCKER: What Al Gore fails to mention is that all three of the debates that Governor Bush accepted would be available to all the broadcast networks. And what Doug Hattaway fails to mention... He focused on cable, the first debate would be on NBC next Tuesday night. So anybody that has television could watch it. What I think we're seeing here is Al Gore backing away from a position that was very politically expedient for him earlier in the campaign and now may not be so. I don't understand why he's not friendly toward these debate formats, such as Tim Russert and a tough question and answer session or a discussion format like Larry King would offer. He wants the very structured, formal debate setting that the presidential debate commission offers; it's a sound bite debate, which is great for Al Gore, because he's a very formatted debater. He's got his 30 and 60-second answers where he talk about how he cares about prescription drugs and wants to pass them.
What we won't get the opportunity to do in that debate is for Governor Bush to follow up to say, great that you say that now, but why has it taken you seven years to pass anything? You haven't done anything in this administration. This administration has failed on a number of issues. And that's what we'd like to get to in the heart of the debates. I'm not sure the presidential debate commission format offers that. We did accept one of the presidential debate commission debates in St. Louis; it would be the third debate. But the other two are definitely great formats for the American people to watch, not only watch but see on the Internet, hear on the radio. They are made available on a number of outlets, not just the television. I think it's really telling that Al Gore at one point said, "I accept, I accept," to Larry King. He taunted Governor Bush on "Meet the Press" and said, you have to get Governor Bush to accept this debate. I have, is he scared? Now we're seeing him back away from the very debates that he made a spectacle of on national television. I think it says a lot about his credibility.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about how the formatted debates play to Al Gore's strengths.
MINDY TUCKER: I didn't say they played to his strengths. They lend themselves to a sound bite debate. I'm not sure that's good for the American people. We're talking about the needs of the American people.
RAY SUAREZ: But there's also been a lot written and a lot talked about in the year since the campaigns began in earnest about how George W. Bush has problems with debates and has avoided them with his primary campaigns until...
MINDY TUCKER: Actually, we did eight or nine debates in the primary. I don't think that was avoiding them at all.
RAY SUAREZ: There were a great many he chose not to attend.
MINDY TUCKER: There were maybe one or two that were early in the year. One night he chose to be with his wife. I think that's kind of a ridiculous statement after we ended up doing eight or nine debates in the primary.
RAY SUAREZ: Doug Hattaway?
DOUG HATTAWAY: I think Governor Bush would do fine in the debates. He performed well against Anne Richards, who is no sloth of a debater. So it's a bit of a mystery why he's backing off of his word where he says he wants more Americans to see these debates than have in the past and he gives us a proposal that would exclude tens of millions of people, virtually guarantee that fewer people would see this. If their message is credibility, they have to do better than that. What we think is important here is the central question of this campaign, it is how are we going to we use our moment of prosperity now and use it wisely to benefit everybody and not just the few? George Bush is putting forward a massive tax cut proposal that would benefit the wealthiest the most. He doesn't want people to understand the details of that and the implications it has, because it's going to keep us from making smart investments like paying down the national debt and eliminating it by the year 2012, as Al Gore is proposing. That has an impact on middle class families. It has an impact on those tens of millions of people that would not watch the debates. I think Mindy left out the fact that Al Gore will do these other programs. We want to do them in addition to the commissioned debates. That's the bottom line. And The fact is Al Gore proposed months ago we drop all the TV advertising and hold regular debates. He ducked that for months. Now at the 11th hour when he's behind he decides he wants to debate and thinks he's going to dictate the terms. That's not right.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me pick up on Mindy Tucker's point. You've come back several times to the lack of universal access to these programs. With this first proposed debate coming quite on soon on NBC, do you think any American interested in watching the program wouldn't be able to see it?
DOUG HATTAWAY: Well, I don't think the other networks are seriously going to give a competing network an hour of time during their primetime programming. It's just not realistic. I think Governor Bush knows that very well. So once again he's talking out of both sides of his mouth. He says he wants a bigger audience and he's doing things to limit the audience. If you really want everybody to tune in, if you really want everybody to hear a real discussion of the issues, the formats are debatable. We're happy to use a variety of formats. But let's have the commissioned debates, which guarantee that access to everyone, including people who don't have cable television in their homes, and have a real debate about that, get beyond the debate. The presidential commission has offered today to have both sides come together and discuss it. We have accepted do that and hope Governor Bush will, as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Mindy Tucker, is there in the acceptance of just one of the three proposed debates by the commission, is there an implied criticism of the commission? This is a system that's been under way for about 20 years. The commission was put together in a bipartisan way to be sort of straight down the middle. Does the Bush campaign have a problem with the presidential debates commission?
MINDY TUCKER: Well, I have to point out first that Clinton/Gore may have a problem with the debate commission because in 1996, they refused to participate in the third debate offered by the commission. So I really have a problem listening to their criticism today. It seems as if it's designed for political expediency. They hate to be in agreement on us with an issue. They hate for us to finally accept something that they've offered because they can't fight about it anymore. It's their obsession in this campaign. They are continually having to launch grenades and fight with this campaign. They launched ten negative ads. They talk about taking ads off the air. The DNC, itself, has launched ten negative ads against Governor Bush and spent millions of dollars misrepresenting his record here in the state of Texas. There are so many things I could talk about that he's brought up that are inaccurate or distorted. But getting back to your point, I think what we wanted to do was think outside the box. Let's offer a variety of formats. In the past we've seen -especially in 1996 -- that these debate audiences have been dropping, between 1992 and 1996 they dropped.
What we wanted to do was offer a variety for people so they could choose from a variety of different formats, see the candidates not in a formal structured debate setting, but also in a free-flow conversation and in a tough question and answer session with a moderator. I think we've offered them three very different formats on three different venues. And I don't see why anybody would want to turn down watching any of them. They've been made available for anybody to see or hear or see broadcast over the Internet. I think there's definitely an availability out there for anybody that wants to see these debates to see them. The idea that we've somehow hid them from the American public is ridiculous. And I think anybody watching is just astounded at what the Gore campaign is saying, because to say we've tried to hide ourselves by offering a debate on major network or major cable network is just ridiculous.
DOUG HATTAWAY: That won't be available to tens of millions of families. That's the fact.
MINDY TUCKER: Because they don't get network television? Because they can't hear it on the radio? I'm not understanding where they're not going to find it.
RAY SUAREZ: Doug Hattaway, this will have to be worked out fairly quickly, I'm guessing, right - very briefly, please.
DOUG HATTAWAY: Again, the commission has proposed we have meetings. The Governor says out of one side of his mouth he wants to be bipartisan about things. He ought to accept this invitation and come together in a bipartisan approach and try to negotiate this. I think the main... the best thing would be to do the commissioned debates and the other debates. That's the best approach. That will guarantee that most people to get to hear it.
MINDY TUCKER: It's funny you didn't feel that way July and March when you accepted these debates. It's really ironic.
RAY SUAREZ: Mindy Tucker, Doug Hattaway, thank you both.