Funny, when Kristol was cheerleading for Bush back in 2004 I don't recall him ever complaining, "But Bush is doing the country and electorate a genuine disservice by only agreeing to three debates." No, that sort of complaint is reserved for Democratic primary candidates, who have "only" participated in twenty-one debates. Kristol smirks,
On Friday in Indiana, Obama talked tough in response to a question: “I get pretty fed up with people questioning my patriotism.” And, he continued, “I am happy to have that debate with them any place, anytime.” He’s happy to have fantasy debates with unnamed people who are allegedly challenging his patriotism. But he’s not willing to have a real debate with the real person he’s competing against for the nomination.... For the twenty-second time.
Let's get real for a moment. What's the advantage to Obama in participating in a debate? It's not like G.W., where he was fortunate enough that an obeisant media led by people like Kristol handed him "wins" for performances that, shall we say, involved significant departures from reality. ("I own a lumber business? That's news to me... Need some wood?") Or where hacks and tools like Kristol were happy to facilitate his hiding from any one-on-one encounter where he might actually have to, you know, think on his feet. Even within the context of the exceedingly complex, self-serving rules Bush and Kerry created for their "debates", hacks like Kristol were pleased to see their man avoid further scrutiny in a context where other people might shape the message.
This is no different. Particularly after the shameful performance of the moderators in the last debate, why would Obama choose to risk having somebody else again attempt to define him and his image in the light of various rumors and petty scandals, when he can instead present the image he prefers? Oh yes, there is a difference - for Kristol, it's only the candidate he favors who should be permitted to retreat from debates and control his own image.
There's something to the idea that debates do the public a service, forcing candidates to speak about the issues or address matters they would prefer fall into the background. That's part of the supposed justification for the smearfest at the start of the last "debate" - who cares about Iraq, health care, energy policy, whatever. "We" want to know more about Rev. Wright, and why Obama didn't conduct a full background check and pull a rap sheet for every person he's associated with over the last forty years. Clinton's offer of an unmoderated debate? Do you think she would stick to actual issues - the economy, health care, Iraq, etc., or do you think she'd be right back in the gutter, confronting Obama on the "issues" Gibson and Stephanopoulos prefer? I have nothing against Clinton, but I think at this point it's obvious that she is perfectly happy to splash around in the gutter if it helps her win.
I would prefer more debates. Perhaps Obama should counter Clinton's proposal by offering her a public debate, but only on specific issues - the ones voters supposedly care about, like health care, tax policy, and the Iraq war. No mention of sniper fire in Bosnia or sitting on charity boards with ex-radicals. But barring that, we're likely to get more of the same - and I can't recall the last time I learned something substantive from one of these debates. Like it or not, in the present context, Obama's choice to decline another debate allows him to better control his message and his image. You and I don't have to like it, but that's what they call "good politics".