Decommission the commission
A Different Drum
We’re in the midst of presidential debate season. By the time this column comes out, two of the three presidential debates will have been held as well as the one and only vice presidential debate. Did you learn anything from these discussions that would help you decide which ticket to vote for?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Debates used to be meaningful. At one time, they were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. No longer.
The League exercised a certain independence in running the debates. In 1980, President Carter refused to participate if liberal Republican John Anderson was included. Governor Reagan refused to participate without him.
The League took Reagan’s side and initially planned a debate between Reagan and Anderson with an empty chair to represent the missing president. Eventually, they chose not to embarrass Carter with the chair, but the point had been made.
A name like Commission on Presidential Debates makes it sound like a governmental agency or at least gives it a sense of legitimacy. In reality, the Commission is a secretive non-profit wholly controlled by the two major political parties.
The Commission was created in 1987, but initially the League of Women Voters was thought to still have a role. But then the League heard that the Bush and Dukakis campaigns had secretly negotiated a memorandum of understanding that included not only who would be allowed to participate in the debates, but which moderators would be allowed, what questions would be asked and even the height of the podium. The League withdrew saying it refused to help ‘perpetrate a fraud on the American voter’.
The Commission was ready and they’ve had complete control since then. One of the main results has been the exclusion of third party candidates. The one exception to this rule was in 1992, when Texas billionaire Ross Perot was allowed to participate. Both campaigns thought Perot’s inclusion would help their side.
In 1996, convinced that Perot’s inclusion had cost George H. W. Bush re-election, Bob Dole insisted that he be excluded. President Clinton agreed on the condition that no follow-up questions be allowed, that one debate be cancelled and the two remaining debates were scheduled opposite the World Series. With a commanding lead in the polls, Clinton’s aim was to minimize the impact of the debates and they got some of the lowest ratings ever.
Perot sued for inclusion in 1996 as did Ralph Nader in 2000, both to no avail. This year, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is suing, using anti-trust laws as his justification. His suit will likely meet the same fate.
But the exclusion of third party candidates is hardly the only negative result of allowing the Commission to control debates. The Commission’s secrecy (a watchdog group in 2008 noted that 93% of their funding came from just six sources, all of which were blacked out on the donor list) is more an issue. There is little public input into the debate process and they’re entirely managed by the campaigns. Even so-called ‘town hall’ style debates are largely scripted.
The result is that the debates have become mostly a bipartisan press conference for the two major candidates, with little substance.
There is some pushback. This year, a group calling itself Help the Commission on Presidential Debates offered to print out comments from the public due to the fact that there is no contact information on the Commission’s web site. Their efforts to deliver those comments though have been met with threats of arrest.
Perhaps more importantly, another non-profit organization, Open Debates was formed in 2003. They advocate for better debates, the inclusion of third party candidates and for candidates to be allowed to question each other (which is currently prohibited each year by the MOUs the campaigns agree to).
Open Debates has had some influence. They’ve posted some of the past secretive MOUs to their web site (the 2004 MOU was more than 30 pages) and have gotten the media to ignore some of the mandates on things like camera angles (probably a result of the 1992 debate when President Bush was caught looking at his watch). There are also female moderators this year, though the moderators chosen are still mostly bland, non-challenging individuals unlikely to ask anything tough or difficult of either candidate.
But there is still a lot of work to do. Our democracy deserves better than pre-scripted press conferences controlled by the two majors parties.
To get involved, see opendebates.org.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.