March 22, 2007
George Farah is the author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates and the founder of Open Debates (www.OpenDebates.org).
The major parties cannot police themselves. For a decade, the House Ethics Committee, comprised of Republicans and Democrats, has refused to punish blatant acts of corruption so that both parties can continue to rake in corporate contributions. Similarly, since its inception, the bipartisan Federal Election Commission has failed to enforce election laws because the appointed Commissioners rebuff efforts to investigate members of their own parties. And unbeknownst to the public, for the last 20 years, through a private corporation called the Commission on Presidential Debates, the Republican and Democratic parties have worked together to ruin our most sacred political forums in order to protect their candidates from genuine debate.
Despite its purported commitment to "providing the best possible information to viewers and listeners," the Commission on Presidential Debates exists to secretly award control of the presidential debates to the Democratic and Republican candidates.
The commission, which claims to "have no relationship with any political party or candidate," was actually created by the Republican and Democratic parties. In 1986, the two parties' national committees ratified an agreement "to take over the presidential debates." Fifteen months later, then-Republican Party chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then-Democratic Party chair Paul Kirk incorporated the commission, and they have co-chaired the organization ever since.
Every four years, negotiators for the major party nominees meet behind closed doors and jointly draft secret debate contracts called memoranda of understanding. These contracts dictate precisely how the debates will be structured—from who gets to participate, to who will ask the questions, to the temperature in the auditoriums. The commission merely implements and conceals the contracts, shielding the major party candidates from public criticism.
In 1996, for example, Republican nominee Bob Dole and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton spoiled the presidential debates before they started. During debate negotiations, Dole demanded the exclusion of Reform Party nominee Ross Perot, despite the fact that Perot had received $29 million in taxpayers' funds for his campaign and that over three-quarters of eligible voters wanted him included. Clinton, meanwhile, desired the smallest possible audience for the debates—what George Stephanopoulos called a "nonevent"—because he was comfortably leading in the polls.
Dole and Clinton struck a deal; Perot would be excluded, one debate would be canceled, and the remaining two debates would be deliberately scheduled opposite the World Series, producing the smallest audience in presidential debate history.
The American people never knew why a candidate they wanted to see was excluded, or why the debates were held on the same night as the World Series. Dole and Clinton were able to conceal their manipulation of the debates because of the complicity of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Moreover, under the commission's tenure, debate formats have become stilted and unrevealing. The Republican and Democratic nominees handpick compliant moderators, artificially limit response times, require the screening of town-hall questions, and even prohibit themselves from talking to each other. The final product amounts to little more than a series of glorified bipartisan press conferences.
Walter Cronkite called the commission-sponsored debates an "unconscionable fraud" and accused the candidates of "sabotaging the electoral process."
To top it off, Anheuser-Busch, US Airways, and other corporations foot most of the bill for these candidate-controlled pseudo-debates through tax-deductible contributions to the commission. Debate sites have become corporate carnivals, with Anheuser-Busch girls in skimpy outfits passing out pamphlets denouncing beer taxes. The corporate connection is not surprising; Mr. Fahrenkopf is the nation's leading gambling lobbyist, and Mr. Kirk has lobbied on behalf of pharmaceutical companies.
The presidential debates weren’t always controlled by the major parties and promoted by business interests. For three election cycles, the League of Women Voters nobly served as a nonpartisan debate sponsor that championed the public interest. In 1980, the league invited independent candidate John B. Anderson to participate in a presidential debate, even though President Jimmy Carter adamantly refused to debate him.
Four years later, when the Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale campaigns vetoed 68 proposed panelists in order to eliminate difficult questions, the league held a press conference and lambasted the candidates for "abusing the process." The ensuing public outcry persuaded the candidates to accept the league's selected panelists.
And in 1988, when the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns drafted the first secret "memorandum of understanding" that dictated who would participate and under what conditions, the league declined to implement it. Instead, the league withdrew its sponsorship and issued a blistering press release, claiming that "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."
We need another nonpartisan debate sponsor—a Citizens’ Debate Commission—to retake control of the presidential debates and follow in the League’s footsteps. Just as an independent ethics prosecutor is needed to combat congressional corruption, and just as an apolitical regulatory agency is needed to enforce election laws, a genuinely nonpartisan debate sponsor is needed to ensure that our most important public forums serve the voters' interests.