The Presidential debates are scheduled for September 30, October 5 (VPs), October 8, and October 13. They have been failing to serve the public interest for years, because the Republican and Democratic parties secretly control them. The debates were run by the League of Women Voters until 1988, when the national Republican and Democratic parties seized control of them by establishing the corporate-sponsored Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).
Remember in 1996, when Ross Perot was not allowed to debate Dole and Clinton, even though he got 19% of the popular vote on his first run in 1992, and qualified for $29 million in election funds? Thank the CPD.
In 1998 in Minnesota's governors race, Jesse Ventura had only 10 percent support in the polls before his 3 debates. On election day he won, and attributed his success to his performance in the debates. Minnesota public radio and the League of Women Voters, which alternated sponsorship of the eight debates, had insisted that Ventura be allowed to participate.
In 2000, the CPD, hoping to neutralize accusations of partisanship while still ensuring third-party exclusion, announced that third-party candidates would have to reach 15 percent in pre-debate polls to receive an invitation to the debates. Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, a party that receives five percent of the popular vote qualifies for federal matching funds for the next election. But they still can't participate in the debates without 15% in the polls. So formidable are the barriers to third parties, that even a two percent criterion applied to all previous presidential debates would have included only three third-party candidates: John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, and Ralph Nader in 2000.
In 2000, five third-party candidates were on enough state ballots to win an electoral college majority. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan attracted more media coverage and popular support than the other third-party challengers, and a clear majority of voters wanted them in the debates. But they were sidelined, and the dreary Bush-Gore debates attracted the smallest audience in the history of televised presidential debates.
So here we are in 2004, a crucial election 2 months away. Judging by the boring DNC we're not going to hear anything spontaneous from Kerry if he can help it. Of course Bush is a total dunce when he's off his teleprompters and his handlers won't let him stray. The debates will probably be more of the same superficially glazing over the issues and flag waving from both sides. The candidates don't even speak to each other, just recite a series of memorized soundbites. I guess they're afraid one might get mad and yell something off-script at the other like "You lying sack of Sh#%*!" That would be refreshing.
Here is an article about the CPD and an alternative to it's 2 party lock on real debate -- the Citizens' Debate Commission. I doubt they have much chance to change the face of Presidential debates this year, but giving them some support now could make a difference down the road. Sign their petition, sign up for their newsletter and send them some money if you can at: www.opendebates.org (where I got most of the above info).
Make Debates Meaningful
Denver Post 8/8/04
By George Farah, Washington, D.C.
The presidential debates are the single most important electoral forums in the country - the only time tens of millions of voters watch the leading contenders for the most powerful job in the world on the same stage at the same time.
Voters want these debates to include candidates discussing important issues in an unscripted manner. Unfortunately, that is not what voters get.
Candidates that some voters want to see often have been excluded, such as Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Issues the American people want to hear about - free trade, government waste, corporate crime and child poverty - are often ignored. So, rather than watching actual debates, voters are subjected to a series of glorified news conferences, with the candidates superficially glazing over the issues while reciting memorized sound bites.
Walter Cronkite called the presidential debates an "unconscionable fraud" because the debate format "defies meaningful discourse."
Americans are getting tired of these exclusionary pseudo-debates, and they are turning off their television sets. Twenty-five million fewer people watched the 2000 presidential debates than watched the 1992 presidential debates.
The debates fail to serve the public interest because the Republican and Democratic parties secretly control them. The Commission on Presidential Debates - a private corporation that was created by the Republican and Democratic parties - seized control of the debates from the League of Women Voters in 1988 and has hosted them ever since. The co-chairmen of the commission, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, are the former heads of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, respectively.
Fahrenkopf is also the nation's leading gambling lobbyist, and Kirk has lobbied for pharmaceutical companies. Not surprisingly, the debates are now primarily funded through tax-deductible corporate contributions, and debate sites have become crass corporate carnivals.
Despite its purported commitment to "voter education," the commission does not fight for informative debates, as the League of Women Voters did.
Instead, the commission secretly submits to the demands of the Republican and Democratic candidates. Behind closed doors, negotiators for the Republican and Democratic nominees draft secret debate contracts, called "memoranda of understanding," that dictate precisely how the debates will be run - from decreeing who can participate, to selecting compliant moderators, to requiring the pre-screening of town-hall questions, to even prohibiting the candidates from talking to each other.
Masquerading as a nonpartisan sponsor, the commission obediently implements and conceals the memoranda of understanding.
If the major-party candidates openly hosted their own debates - rather than hid behind a compliant commission - at least they would be held accountable for them. The major-party candidates would be blamed if uninspiring formats were used, or if other candidates were excluded, or if important issues were ignored. The Republican and Democratic nominees would either pay a price on Election Day or host democratic debates to avoid public censure. Under the existing sponsorship regime, however, the commission is conveniently blamed for the debates' flaws. The commission deceptively shields the major-party candidates from public criticism.
This lack of transparency is unacceptable, and that is why 17 national civic leaders from the left, center and right of political spectrum - including Paul Weyrich, Chellie Pingree of Common Cause, Alan Keyes, Tom Gerety of the Brennan Center for Justice, Bay Buchanan, Randall Robinson, former FEC General Counsel Larry Noble, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Jehmu Green of Rock the Vote - created the Citizens' Debate Commission.
Bolstered by an advisory board comprised of 60 diverse civic groups, the Citizens' Debate Commission aims to sponsor presidential debates that serve the American people, not political parties, first. "That's what we need," said Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards when told of the formation of the Citizens' Debate Commission.
The Citizens' Debate Commission has announced sites and dates for five presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate to be held in colleges and universities around the country this fall. Those debates would feature engaging formats, include the candidates the American people want to see, and address a variety of pressing national issues. Now, President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry must decide whether to courageously participate in truly informative and transparent presidential debates, or to deceptively manipulate these crucial public forums at the expense of voter education.
George Farah is the founder and executive director of Open Debates ( www.opendebates.org).