Monday, October 2, 2023 Oct 2, 2023
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By Chris Tucker |

On consecutive nights, less than three weeks before the crucial “Super Tuesday” primary elections, KERA will give viewers the opportunity to see the candidates of the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries in their first face-off on Sunbelt issues. The Texas Debates: The Democratic Candidates will air Thursday, February 18, at 8 p.m., and The Republican Candidates will air Friday, February 19, at 8.

KERA, in association with The Dallas Morning News and Texas Monthly, will produce these nationally televised debates. In addition to live telecast by Texas’ ten public television stations, the programs will be offered live via PBS to its more than 300 public television stations nationwide and via American Public Radio to 360 public radio stations.

An added dimension to The Texas Debates is the involvement of the College Satellite Network. CSN will transmit the debates to an estimated 250,000 students attending convocations at nearly 600 colleges across the country. Hodding Carter will host the pre- and post-debate discussions and report the results of the preference surveys that will be taken during the debates.

Production of The Texas Debates is underwritten by Southwestern Belt Foundation and MCI Telecommunications Corporation, Southwest Division.

First question: Will all the candidates be here? The Iowa caucuses will be held February 8, followed by the New Hampshire primary a week later. Results from those states could mean lights out for a few of the original thirteen candidates. On the Republican side, Al Haig and Pierre “Pete” DuPont are likely to get only single digits in the two early contests and would be likely dropouts except for two facts: DuPont is infinitely rich, and Haig is infinitely stubborn. That may keep them going a while longer. But New York’s Jack Kemp could vanish. It seems like he’s been running forever, but if he cuts no ice in nearby New Hampshire, old Number 15 may have to admit that voters do not share his almost religious adoration of pure capitalism. He might not make it to KERA’s The Texas Debates on February 18 and 19 at 8 p.m.

As for the Democrats, it’s impossible to predict the effect Gary Hart will have on the race, but no candidate seems likely to benefit from Hart’s re-entry. With or without Hart, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee will do poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he’s banking on Super Tuesday. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri will hang on with similar hopes. Longest of the long shots is Arizona’s former governor, Bruce Babbitt – thoughtful, honest, but as charismatic as cold molasses. Babbitt’s chances in February are summed up in the title of a recent bad movie: Less Than Zero. He, too, could be a no-show in Dallas.

So the guest list is a bit uncertain, but any candidate with a political pulse-beat will be here because of the timing: March 8, Super Tuesday, looms. Most southern states hold primaries that day, choosing thirty-seven percent of the delegates to the national conventions. Roger Mudd, the debates’ moderator, will plumb the depths (or the shallows) of the debaters, but even the most skilled questioner cannot overcome nature. Just as apples do not become elephants, our political leaders have certain genetic limitations that dictate and forbid certain behavior. As we watch the two confrontations, we must keep in mind the Unofficial, Real Rules of Political Debate. Among them:

Nobody can admit they were ever wrong about anything. Reagan’s now-famous line, “Mistakes were made,” is as close as anyone can come to admitting fallibility. Watch for those sudden shifts to the passive voice, which dilute responsibility for snafus. The corollary to this rule is that nobody can admit that an opponent in the other party was ever right about anything. Exception: Dead Democrats are almost always right. Jack Kemp praises John F. Kennedy; several of the GOP candidates love Harry Truman; all pay homage to the late, lamented ’’Scoop Jackson wing” of the Democratic party. Of course, dead Democrats draw no votes.

The candidates know that voters have short memories. This rule leads to some heavy irony. George Bush now lambastes Pete DuPont for wanting to “privatize” Social Security. “It may be a new idea, but it’s a nutty one,” Bush said in an earlier debate. (The quip brought some laughs, so you’ll hear it again.) But allowing a “market” alternative to Social Security is not even a new idea, as Bush well knows. His current boss, Ronald Reagan, advocated similar reforms in 1980. Of course, nobody remembers this.

0nly hopeless losers can be bold and innovative. This maxim especially applies to talk of raising taxes. Bruce Babbitt can “stand up” for higher taxes all day long; those with any kind of chance for the nomination will keep their seats and remember the fate of poor Walter Mondale, whose candor about raising taxes earned him a historic beating. Paul Simon, the new New Dealer’s hope, launched some provocative trial balloons about a “Guaranteed Job Opportunity Program” to get welfare recipients back to work. However, as his standing rose in the polls, Simon retreated from specifics. How can he increase social spending (he says his plan would cost $8 billion a year; some analysts say that’s low) and balance the budget within three years, another campaign pledge? Simon’s not saying. Talk about irony: The more popular the candidate, the fewer risks he takes and the less we know about what he would do in office. That’s why a team of sadistic dentists couldn’t pry a controversial idea out of George Bush. If Simon sinks with Hart’s re-entry, maybe he’ll talk specifics.

It’s bad form to bash the little guys (unless there’s a good reason for it). Americans like the battered underdog who trudges bravely onward, even if we wouldn’t think of wasting our votes on the guy. So those with feeble standing in the polls get treated more gently than the genuine contenders. You don’t lob hand grenades at mice. If he’s there, the Democrats will treat Bruce Babbitt with courtesy; Haig and Kemp also get kid gloves most of the time. Exception: If an underdog gets too feisty, the contender must bash him or look weak. Thus the catfight between Bush and DuPont. By beating up on DuPont, Bush can shed some of his “wimp” image and score some points with the working man through little jabs – like calling DuPont “Pierre,” a reminder of DuPont’s patrician background. Of course, both men are from the country club set, but Bush wants to make sure everyone sees that silver spoon dangling from DuPont’s mouth.

Both sides need Jesse Jackson. The Democrats need Jackson to stay happy through the July convention in Atlanta. If Jackson does not feel he has been given his measure of delegates and respect, he will not work hard to support the eventual nominee -and that nominee, no matter what happens on Super Tuesday, will not be Jesse Jackson. America is not ready to elect a black president, and when the time comes, the black chosen will more likely be a bank president than a firebrand preacher. Still, Jackson must be mollified to avoid the Democrats’ nightmare: an angry Jackson bolting to form his own party. The Democratic debaters cannot offend him too much because they must have a huge black vote to offset at least some of the heavy Republican white vote below the Mason-Dixon line.

However, we could see fireworks between Jackson and Al Gore if Jackson is running well ahead of him in the polls prior to Super Tuesday. At that juncture Gore will be desperate. To carry any momentum into Illinois and the big industrial states, he must have a whopping turnout in the South on Super Tuesday. Gore knows about Jackson’s heavy negatives among Southern white voters. Gore is also the most centrist Democrat, the one most favorable to an occasional flexing of U.S. military muscle; Jackson is the most anti-military of the lot. That puts the two on a natural collision course. If Gore attacks Jackson, he crosses his Rubicon. He had better hope plenty of white voters are waiting on the other side.

The GOP debaters in Dallas will run on about broadening the party to bring in more minorities, but the sad truth is the Republicans do not need black votes to win. They scored landslide victories in 1972, 1980, and 1984 with just a smidgeon of the black vote. Still, the Republicans need Jackson as a foil. Their eventual strategy will be to paint the Democrats as hostage to Jackson’s far-left policies on defense; a vote for any Democrat, they will say, is a vote for a weaker America.

George Bush cannot and will not repudiate Reagan. Forget it. Trying to get the vice president to “outline areas of disagreement” with the president runs smack into the Loyal Co-Pilot Manuever. Surely the question is legitimate. Bush may love Reagan, but he is not Reagan, and we need to know what President Bush would do once Reagan heads for the ranch. Will voters reward loyalty or independence? Bush is playing the loyalty card.

A debate is only as good as the questions, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some of these: For Paul Simon: How will you pay for that jobs program and balance the budget? Please start your answers with the word “by” and a verb -by cutting x, by increasing y, etc. Voters don’t want a “secret plan,” so tell us now, and tell us which economists worked with you on (he numbers. For the other Democrats: If you think Simon’s workfare ideas are baloney, how would you propose to break the tragic cycle of generations on welfare?

For George Bush: David Stockman wrote that our huge budget deficits were created deliberately in order to generate popular support for cutting down the welfare state. Did you know about this? If so, did you agree with the strategy? If not, why didn’t you protest or resign? For Bush or Bob Dole: Pal Robertson has prayed to turn away hurricanes and practiced faith healing on television. Do you believe we need a president who relies on the supernatural to get things done? Is Robertson a threat to the separation of church and slate, or what? Aren’t you and the other mainstream candidates going easy on Robertson so you won’t alienate his fundamentalist followers?

For Pat Robertson: In the Houston PBS debate, you used the name of God just twice -in the phrase “God-fearing* and the phrase “One nation under God.” In the NBC debates, you never mentioned the Lord. Are you soft-peddling your evangelical career in order to lure secular voters who fear you’re a zealot? If not, could you give us something from the Old Testament about import tariffs?

For Al Haig: You’ve said that the Congress today is a “one-man, one-vole anarchy” lacking discipline, a Congress in which the “most outrageous radical” gets undue media attention. Could you first name a few members of Congress you consider “outrageous radicals” and then tell us how you would discipline the Congress?

Finally, a word about (he medium that brings you these valuable debates -and valuable they are, despite their limitations and rhetorical haze. Debates allow us to see our candidates tested under pressure. A skilled interrogator like Mudd can show us how a leader’s mind works or fails to work. Television is often guilty of reducing complex problems to colorful sound bites, but serious televised debates let us eavesdrop on the thinking of those who would negotiate with Gorbachev, combat terrorism, and cure our economic woes.

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