Warning lights, orange skin — and hopefully some substance

Topics: War Room,

The fight over lectern lights just hours before the first presidential debate was pretty symbolic of how substance-averse the agreed upon rules for tonight’s event are. George W. Bush’s debate team pushed to have signal lights alert the audience at home and in the auditorium when the candidates run over their allotted miniscule moments for explaining their positions. The conventional wisdom is that this will do damage to John Kerry, who is “known for favoring long sentences and statements,” as the AP puts it. (The horror!) Bush’s team won on this point, as they did with many of the terms of the debate. We’re surprised they didn’t get the commission to shock long-winded candidates with cattle prods.

Today, the Kerry campaign complained about the warning lights actually being placed on the lecterns — it will make the room “look like a game show,” Joe Lockhart said on CNN. Late this afternoon, the debate commission wasn’t budging on the lectern lights.

We’re trying to reserve cynicism about tonight’s “debate” and hold out hope that somehow a substantive discussion will break out during and after the 90-minute forum — and that Americans will get more from their media and politicians than they got four years ago with the Bush-Gore debates, when pundits and campaign advisers wrung their hands over the tint of Al Gore’s skin and the volume of his sighs.

After all, all hell is breaking loose in Iraq — 34 children among the dead just today. There’s a lot for the candidates to talk about. Lynne Cheney is making jokes about John Kerry’s “tan,” perhaps trying to resuscitate the Orange Democrat meme from four years ago. But let’s hope everyone (the media) gets down to business tonight and dwells on the substance of the debate.

And yet, those strict rules and regs — all 32 pages of them, in all their nitpicking glory — are designed to strip substance from the proceedings and compel us to listen to the typical talking points from the candidates.

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According to the ground rules, there will be no opening statements. Moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS will ask the first question, and the first candidate to speak will have 2 minutes to answer. The other candidate will then get 90 seconds to respond. The moderator can then at his discretion “extend” discussion for 60 whole seconds, but he must first call on the candidate who originally took the question. “To the extent that the moderator opens extended discussion, the moderator shall use his best efforts to ensure that each candidate has a maximum of approximately 30 seconds to comment in the extended discussion period,” the rules state.

Also: The candidates cannot move from behind the podium, cannot address each other with anything but rhetorical questions and cannot propose pledges.

Some rules could well be broken tonight, however. The TV networks have already said they plan on ignoring some of the commission regs dictating what images can be broadcast. The official rules prohibit shots of Bush or Kerry while the other one speaks. Fox News is running the “pool” coverage, feeding multiple streams of video to the other networks — and also feeding suspicion in the liberal blogosphere that somehow the choice of images shown would be biased toward Bush — but it’s up to each control room what shots to show. Reuters reports: “CNN executive vp and general manager Princell Hair criticized the agreement worked out between the campaign managers for President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry. ‘The level of restrictions is unprecedented, as far as I can tell,’ Hair said. ‘ … we’re just not going to comply.”

So, we won’t get any interaction between Bush and Kerry, but maybe there will be some spontaneity after all! Stay tuned to the networks for their bold choices in cutaway shots.

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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