Baer: Prez debate improvement not likely

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Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump during a GOP primary debate: The general election debates appear to promise more of the same name calling and canned answers. AP Photo / David J. Phillip

I HAD HOPE this year.

I figured, given the political season we're in, with tons of crazy and two top candidates disliked by a majority of voters, we'd at least get better presidential debates.

And by better I mean more than two-minute answers that allow candidates to quote their TV ads or spout practiced lines from some smart staffer.

I mean with no audience to distract or chortle or gasp or applaud, and with questions framing important issues and demanding comprehensive answers.

My hope intensified after noting that the Commission on Presidential Debates is late announcing this year's format, which had been promised by spring.

Aha, I thought, the commission's struggling with new ideas suitable for our candidates: something to give her a chance to be trustworthy, something to give him a chance to know things.

Alas, after chatting with commission cochairman Frank Fahrenkopf, seems we're in for mostly what we're used to.

Fahrenkopf says 2016 formats for three 90-minute debates are to be announced Thursday in Washington. And while declining to discuss specifics, he says to expect "nothing earth-shattering."

Sigh. I'd settle for something room-shaking.

Yet it sounds like last time: two debates with questions from moderators chosen later (Megyn Kelly, Megyn Kelly, Megyn Kelly), and one town-hall-type with questions from citizens.

They are Sept. 26, Dayton, Ohio; Oct. 9, St. Louis; Oct. 19, Las Vegas; and a VP debate Oct. 4 at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.

I ask Fahrenkopf, who cofounded the commission in 1987, about going audience-free. Kennedy/Nixon didn't have one.

"We considered it," he says.

What about ongoing complaints and petitions to do more formal Oxford-style formats?

"I hear that, and I can't tell you how many times we've been sued."

But he defends past formats, especially those that while first asking for two-minute responses allow 15-minute blocks on selected topics, thereby giving moderators 11 more minutes to "drill down" for details and specifics.

This pressures moderators. Jim Lehrer of PBS took heat after the first 2012 Obama/Romney debate for not reining candidates in.

And who knows what Donald Trump does? Heck, he could even skip a debate, as he did during the GOP primary.

Think it's out of the question? Jimmy Carter skipped the first debate in 1980, leaving Ronald Reagan to debate independent candidate John Anderson.

Of course, Carter then lost the election.

Speaking of independents, this year could see a third candidate for the first time since 1992 (Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot).

Trump and Hillary Clinton have such high negatives that the Libertarian candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, just might end up on stage.

Commission rules say participants must be at 15 percent or higher in five selected national polls and on the ballot in enough states to total the 270 electoral votes required to win the White House.

The Real Clear Politics average of polls now has Johnson at 8 percent. As a 2012 presidential candidate, he got 1 percent of the vote.

I doubt anyone wants anything akin to the seven, three-hour Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858: first candidate spoke for an hour, second candidate for an hour and a half, first candidate then got a half-hour rebuttal.

But debates pressing candidates to explain exactly how they'd achieve promised goals as president would be far better than what's likely coming: She's got bad judgment; he's not qualified; she can't be trusted; he's temperamentally unfit.

If that's the debate, the American people might decide they're both right.

What then?

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer