A bipartisan commission announced yesterday that an agreement has been reached on four dates for presidential debates in 1988. Eight Democratic and seven Republican presidential aspirants have agreed to hold open the dates - set for the fall of 1988 - and accept the Commission on Presidential Debates as the official sponsor.
``The agreement ... takes this commission a long step toward the permanent institutionalization of debates in the general election process and ... in fulfilling our roles as political parties in educating the electorate about the views and philosophies of our two parties...,'' says Paul G. Kirk Jr., commission co-chairman and Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman.
The 10-member commission is a nonprofit organization formed by the DNC and the Republican National Committee (RNC) last February to officially sponsor the presidential and vice-presidential debates. The commission was created in hopes of regularizing the debates and ending arguments between candidates and sponsors of previous debates concerning format and other issues.
Commission co-chairman and RNC chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. pointed out that ``from 1960 to 1976 ... there were no presidential debates.'' The commission wants presidential debates to become an integral and permanent part of the process.
Mr. Fahrenkopf points out that there still are no guarantees that the final nominees will agree to a debate. The commission will make recommendations on format, location, and other specifics, but it cannot force the candidates to debate.
``Until you have the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties standing on the stage and the red light goes on, you don't know for sure whether we are going to have debates,'' says Fahrenkopf.
Some political observers have complained that debates sponsored by the parties will eliminate the role of the League of Women Voters, which has sponsored previous debates. Commission members praise the League's previous efforts, and support their plans to sponsor primary debates before the party conventions.
``I don't think there is any suggestion, purpose, or motive in mind on the part of this commission, and clearly not on the part of the political parties to put the League `out of the debate business,''' said Mr. Kirk.
Kirk added: ``I have applauded the League in having filled what I think has been a void in the past. [But] at some point [the parties] have to take up our own responsibility and I think the time is right.''
Fahrenkopf added that candidates are ``free to do what they want to do'' in terms of other debates.
That there will be other debates seems certain, at least before the conventions. Democratic aspirants Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis have been exchanging debate crossfire over the weekend and early this week as a means to clarify their disagreements over trade policy and an oil import fee.
Rep. Gephardt wants to hold the ``mini-debate'' in Massachusetts, and Gov. Dukakis wants it held in Iowa where Gephardt first derided the Massachusetts governor's trade policy, saying it sounded ``like Ronald Reagan.''