Monday, June 14, 2004

Dated Monday, June 14th, 2:30 am, revised june 14th, 10:50 am (re Barack Obama's agnosticism on universal health care)

Jack Ryan and Barack Obama begin the debate over Debates. Jack wants ten debates; Barack wants six. Berkowitz wants (1) to maximize the chances that all or most Illinois voters can see all or most of the debates on television; (2) to stay away from the special interest, bias susceptible “town all meeting,” formats and (3) to stay away from the biased League of Women Voters and their archaic, failed formats.

Last week Jack Ryan scheduled a press conference for today, Monday, June 14 to discuss his proposals for a series of debates with his opponent, Barack Obama, for the Illinois open U. S. Senate seat. His press notice did not indicate a theme, but his press secretary indicated Jack Ryan would answer questions on whatever topics the media raised and that Jack Ryan planned to challenge Barack at the press conference to a series of debates.

Barack Obama, in an unusual move for someone reportedly ahead in the polls by 11 to 22 points, yesterday, at his own press conference, challenged Jack Ryan to debates, and the press notice (and letter from Barack to Jack) that I received after the press conference indicated that Barack proposed a series of six debates, including two in Chicago, WTTW and the League of Women Voters; one with the Illinois Radio Network, held in Springfield; and one each in Carbondale, Alton and the Quad Cities. The Obama letter proposes that a “Town Hall” format should be incorporated for some or all of these debates so that the “Citizens have the opportunity to ask questions.”

Since I did not receive notice of the Obama Press Conference, I could not attend it, but Bill Pascoe, Communications Director for the Jack Ryan Campaign, told me, when I reached him on Sunday night, that Pascoe had handed the Jack Ryan letter to Barack Obama just prior to the Obama Press Conference. The letter asks Obama to join Ryan in “a series of debates, at least one in each media market in the state.” The Ryan letter indicates that the campaigns would discuss timing and format.

Pascoe and Ryan Press Secretary Kelli Phiel indicated to me on Sunday night that the 10 media markets for their suggested debates include Chicago (apparently WTTW and LWV/Ch. 7), Peoria, Rockford, Quad Cities, Quincy, St. Louis/Collinsville, Springfield/Champaign, Padukah (Carbondale/Mt. Vernon) and Evansville/Terra Haute (Southeastern Illinois).

Obama’s letter argues that Obama/Ryan owe the people of Illinois more than glib TV ads and sound bites and references the Lincoln Douglas debates that “captivated the attention of the entire nation… a century and a half ago.”

However, Pascoe argued to me that Lincoln faced Douglas in seven debates, in each of the congressional districts in which they had not previously appeared, and therefore the Lincoln/Douglas debates were precedent for the Ryan 10 debates as opposed to the Obama 6 debates. Phiel also indicated that the 10 debates were necessary to insure total television coverage throughout the State of Illinois.

I asked Pascoe if he didn’t think it was a little odd that apparent front-runner Obama was attempting to get out in front on the debate issue and challenge Ryan to a series of debates. Pascoe pointed out that the Ryan campaign had given their letter to Obama first. However, Pascoe also stated, “If you are Barack Obama and you have been debating for eight years as a state legislator and Jack Ryan is making his first run for office, you [Barack Obama] have to feel pretty confident.”

Perhaps Pascoe was simply engaging in the usual attempt by campaigns to lower expectations for their candidate—in this case, Jack Ryan. So, I asked Pascoe if, given the Obama debating experience and skills that he just referenced, was he at least a little concerned about making this senate race about 10 debates. Pascoe responded, “Jack Ryan has the issues on his side-- that is what really matters and the voters will line up with Jack. It doesn’t matter how pretty you make it.” Pascoe indicated that he wanted the voters to get a good, solid look at the two senate candidates and their competing/contrasting visions. For example, Pascoe thinks the voters will be attracted to Jack Ryan’s positions on trying to reign in spending and taxes; on allowing kids who are trapped in failing schools to escape to attend performing schools, trying to make health insurance affordable and accessible to all, as opposed to what he characterized as Obama’s support for universal health care.

Pascoe told me he attended Sunday’s Obama press conference and Pascoe asserted to me that Barack Obama said, when the press conference cameras were not running on Sunday, that Jack Ryan had misrepresented Barack Obama’s position on health care by saying that Barack favors universal health care. Pascoe indicated that Barack said today Barack is agnostic on health care and that he has never said he favors universal health care. Pascoe indicated that Barack has said in the past that he favors universal health care. Ironically, in light of all of the recent news attention about the Jack Ryan “campaign tracker,” the Jack Ryan campaign did not have a camera at Sunday’s Obama “press conference. Pascoe said that the Ryan campaign would continue to follow Barack with a camera tracker, but that today’s event was not videotaped by the Ryan campaign simply because its cameras were not available for this event-- Pascoe lamented that the Ryan camera missed Barack's statement today about his agnosticism on universal health care.

The Barack Obama Campaign could not be reached for comment on Sunday’s Obama press conference and the issues raised above.

So, the debate about debates could itself be interesting. Whether it is six or ten, or somewhere in between, the number, format and timing should be set-up in a way that maximizes the chances that Illinois voters will be able to see all of the debates on television, even if some would have to aired on a delayed basis. Also, since only a small number, at best, of the 13 million, or so, Illinois citizens could ask questions at any “Debate,” let’s not try the Town Hall formats, which are always susceptible to bias produced by either or both campaigns “packing,” the audience.

Finally, let’s not reward organizations, e.g., League of Women Voters/ Ch. 7 that during the primary season gave the power to choose debate questions, almost exclusively, to ethnic, group identity political groups. That and other aspects of the debate format produced two of the most boring, biased “debates,” known to mankind. Instead of going down the well worn, previously failed LWV path yet again, let’s give that debate to someone who is tough, capable and able to lead Obama and Ryan through a series of thought-provoking issues and questions. But, who that person could be, I just don’t know. I just don't know.

Jeff Berkowitz, host and producer of “Public Affairs,” and moderator of the Libertarian Presidential candidate debate in Illinois, can be reached at