Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 23, 1996

Clinton-Dole Debate to
Begin Odyssey Course

Steve Libowitz
After months of snipes and swipes, complaining and explaining from a distance, the presidential candidates from the two major political parties will finally face each other in a series of debates leading up to the Nov. 5 election.

The public is invited to watch the first of the three proposed debates between President Clinton and Republican candidate Bob Dole on the big screen in Shriver Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 25. The event is part of DebateWatch '96, a nationwide voter education project organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

A discussion will precede the live 9 to 10:30 p.m. broadcast from San Diego. Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science and director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government, will serve as moderator, and his guest will be Jeffrey Fager, executive producer of CBS News.

As The Gazette went to press, it still was not confirmed that the debate would take place. Regardless, says organizer Ghita Levine, the Shriver Hall event will go on. It is the first class in Campaign Issues '96, a noncredit course offered by the School of Continuing Studies Odyssey program and moderated by Levine. The course fee is $85 for five class sessions (including the Sept. 25 event), featuring prominent political and media analysts discussing a range of issues raised during this campaign.

Course registrants also are invited on Sept. 25 to a 7:15 p.m. reception in the Clipper Room, upstairs in Shriver Hall.

There will be no charge for Hopkins students--with identification--who would like to hear any of the speakers included in the Odyssey course.

One person no one will get to hear is Reform Party candidate Ross Perot. Last week, the Commission on Presidential Debates recommended that Perot be excluded from the proposed televised debates, saying he had an unrealistic chance of winning. Although he received 19 percent of the vote when he ran for president in 1992, his standing in most public opinion polls this year is about half that.

While the commission's recommendation is not binding on Dole and Clinton, who set the terms of the debates, it is expected to be accepted, at least for the first encounter.

Ginsberg says that it's perfectly valid to leave Perot out of the debates, even though he received about $30 million in public funds this year to conduct his presidential campaign.

"That he received any government funding speaks more about the stupidity of the federal campaign funding laws than it does about Perot's validity," Ginsberg says. "These debates are privately sponsored, and the organizers have a right to invite those candidates they believe have a chance of becoming president. And Perot is just not a serious candidate. He's a vanity candidate who has been taken more seriously by the press than he deserves."

The debates themselves, however, should be taken seriously, Ginsberg believes, even though they have been more memorable of late for one-line zingers--like Ronald Reagan's "There you go again" and Lloyd Bentsen's "You're no Jack Kennedy"--rather than substantive arguments over policy and issues. They have changed political fortunes with most pundits and scholars generally in agreement that the 1960 televised debates were instrumental in helping John Kennedy defeat Richard Nixon. They helped sink the fortunes of Gerald Ford, who twisted his candidacy up in his insistence that in 1976 Poland was not under Communist influence.

And to critics who argue that debates today suffer from creeping superficiality, Ginsberg responds that "debates are like job interviews. In academia, the critical factor for a professorial candidate is the job talk, the 40-minute presentation by the applicant followed by faculty questions. The person who does well is often the one hired.

"Presidential politics is much the same. In the 19th century, debates were long, drawn-out events, which favored someone with good lungs, a loud voice and the endurance to withstand long hours of standing, often in unbearable heat," he says. "So why should someone with a loud voice be at an advantage in a debate? It was just the reality of the times. Politics was dominated by orators. Today, politics is dominated by television, and the advantage goes to the candidate who presents himself well on camera. It's futile to argue if this is good or bad. It's the way of the world.

"Maybe as the information age enters the next century, the advantage will go to the candidate who can type the fastest."

That said, Ginsberg does not hold out much hope that Dole will have much advantage in the debates, whether they are four hourlong meetings (as he prefers) or two two-hour contests (favored by Clinton).

"Dole is from the Midwest. He's old school. He's not good on television," Ginsberg says. "His best chance to sway undecided voters is to be the opposite of "slick Willy" because Clinton is very televisual and a terrific campaigner. So he'll have to make something of his homeyness and folksiness. He's going to have to make a virtue of his media defects and try to connect with folks watching, saying, 'Look, I'm just like you. You couldn't compete any better than I with this guy. But all he does is debate. He doesn't do anything.' "

Will that strategy work?

"Probably not," Ginsberg admits with a laugh. "Dole hasn't been able to bring it off yet, although as the [Jack] Kemp nomination proved, he is capable of surprises. I think that no matter what happens in the debates, Dole is just too far behind in the polls and is just not a strong enough candidate to beat Clinton. His only hope is that Clinton beats himself, which is becoming less and less likely in an age when the public is accustomed to a certain level of financial and personal scandal.

"Clinton would have to somehow combine the audacity of Gary Hart [who invited reporters in 1984 to follow him for a weekend to prove he was not a womanizer, only to get photographed with Donna Rice on his lap on a boat called Monkey Business] and the bad judgment of Richard Nixon. And let's face it, that's probably not going happen."

Campaign '96
Course Offerings

Here are the topics and speakers included in the Odyssey course, Campaign Issues '96:

Sept. 25: The Presidential Debates

Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science and director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government

Jeffrey Fager, executive producer of CBS News

Oct. 1: The Character Issue

Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes, biography of Bob Dole

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters

Oct. 8: Political Realignments

Sidney Blumenthal, special political correspondent for The New Yorker

Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO

Ernest Tollerson, New York Times national correspondent who has been following Ross Perot

Oct. 15: Polls and Pollsters

Peter Hart, Democratic pollster

Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, Republican National Committee pollster, specializing in issues affecting women and young voters

Fred Steeper, Republican pollster

Oct. 22: Highs and Lows of Campaign '96

Jeffrey Birnbaum, senior correspondent for Time magazine and author of Madhouse: The Private Turmoil of Working for the President

Mara Liasson, NPR White House correspondent

John Fund, Wall Street Journal editorial board member

For more information on this course, call (410)516-7428.

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