The campaigns are currently wrapping up negotiations on format for the upcoming Presidential debates. The New York Times reports:
“The Obama and McCain campaigns have agreed to an unusual free-flowing format for the three televised presidential debates which begin Friday, but the McCain camp fought for and won a much more structured approach for the questioning at the vice-presidential debate, advisers to both campaigns said Saturday.”
The McCain campaign hopes that a tighter format with shorter Q&A segments than in the Presidential debates will prevent Palin from being exposed as utterly unqualified. McCain’s campaign had actually requested zero time for direct exchanges between the candidates, but were rebuffed.
The format was negotiated by Lindsey Graham for the GOP and Rahm Emannuel for the Democrats. Apparantly the process was civil:
“The negotiations for the three 90-minute debates between the men at the top of the tickets were largely free of brinksmanship. Neither side threatened to pull out, and concerns about camera angles and stagecraft were minor.”
The campaigns have settled on a final format:
“Now the candidates will be asked a question, each will give an answer of two minutes or less, and then they will mix it up for five additional minutes before moving on to the next question in the same format.”
Good for them. They’ve set the stage for an elaborate kabuki performance. The recent history of Presidential debates is a testimony to cash-washed corporatism, institutional arrogance, and bipartisan efforts to stage-manage all spontaneity out of existence. Let’s begin:
Through 1984, Presidential debates were run by the non-partisan League of Women Voters. The League selected debate panelists and submitted them for approval to the campaigns. For the first debate in 1984, Reagan and Mondale vetoed nearly 100 proposed panelists. The League publicly criticized both campaigns for “totally abusing the process,” and for the second debate, neither campaign rejected any of the first proposed panelists.
The League pushed for lively and substantive debates, and was friendly towards the inclusion of third-party candidates. In 1980, President Carter refused to participate in a debate with both Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson. The League insisted on Anderson’s inclusion, and when Carter didn’t play along they held a televised debate with just Reagan and Anderson.
The League of Women Voters, a respected, non-partisan organization, ensured both procedural fairness and substantive debate. Not surprisingly, the campaigns decided to make an end-run around them. In 1988, the Bush and Dukakis campaigns agreed on a secretly-negotiated Memorandum of Understanding settling all terms including the panel selection process, the makeup of the audience, and (best of all!) banning follow-up questions. When the campaigns released their agreement to the public, the League accused them of “fraud on the American voter” and withdrew their support. What followed?
The freshly-created Commission on Presidential Debates. The CPD is a non-profit corporation led by former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Fahrenkopf and Kirk are also, respectively, a casino lobbyist and trustee of the Free Enterprise Foundation and a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. As Sourcewatch notes, CPD’s 9 board members collectively serve on the boards of over 30 corporations; and 5 are partners in corporate law firms.
The CPD mediates the discussions between the campaigns and enforces the terms of the settlement, as well as providing a veneer of independence. There should, however, be no doubt about who’s in charge. In 1992, the Bush Sr. and Clinton campaigns were both OK with wanted Perot and so he was invited. In 1996, neither Dole nor Clinton wanted him; Dole feared losing votes to Perot, and Clinton, who had a massive lead, wanted the debates to be as much of a “non-event” as possible. The campaigns agreed, and their secretly-negotiated memorandum excluded Perot despite his having won a surprising 19% in the previous election. (If there’s any doubt about the importance of being in debates, consider that Perot was at only 7% in 1992 before he got on stage with Bush and Clinton.)
Other candidates have also been excluded despite meeting a variety of impressive benchmarks. In 2000, Pat Buchanan had qualified for $12 million in public funding and was left off the stage. Ralph Nader was also denied despite being on the ballot in 43 states and the District of Columbia. The process is simple: The two major parties agree to keep the debates to themselves, and CPD legitimizes this by setting arbitrarily high “objective” standards for inclusion. After 1992, CPD decided that candidates would require a 15% average in public polling in order to be invited. This is prohibitive — as noted, Ross Perot spent millions of dollars of his own money and was only at 7% before being brought into the debates and shooting to almost 20%. The 15% requirement is a self-fulfilling prophecy by which third-party candidates are denied public exposure, subsequently fail to improve their poll numbers, and then are excluded again on the logic of their poor poll numbers. As the Open Debates organization notes:
“A 15 percent criterion applied to all the presidential debates of the twentieth century would have excluded every third party candidate except for Congressman John Anderson, who participated in televised Republican primary debates. A five percent criterion applied to all previous presidential debates would have excluded every third-party candidate, except for John Anderson and Ross Perot. In fact, so formidable are the barriers to third party voices, 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.”
Who cares? Third parties have no Congressional representation and little to no party organization. Who would want a few more cranks up on stage with the big boys?
“UTICA, New York – More than half of likely voters nationwide – 55% – want Republican-turned-Libertarian Bob Barr to participate in presidential debates this fall, while nearly half – 46% – said they think Ralph Nader should be allowed into the on-stage fray, the latest Zogby Interactive polling shows.”
“Seventy-six percent of registered voter supported Ross Perot’s inclusion in the 1996 debates, and 64 percent wanted Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan included in the 2000 presidential debates.”
Obviously the American public wants to see these guys. Wouldn’t this be a better metric than asking third-party candidates to magically poll 15 percent before they’ve had the money or airtime required to introduce themselves to the public? It’s not like the masses are begging to see a half-dozen nobodies; Bob Barr is a well-known former Congressman, and he’s barely over 50%; Nader is a consumer hero who’s done this before, including filling Madison Square Garden, and he’s still missing the threshhold.
Defenders of the status quo argue that since there are over 200 candidates, allowing more into the debates would lead to anarchy in the UK and dogs and cats living together. As noted though, very few of them will actually be able to garner a majority demand for inclusion. Other criteria also exist that are both fair enough to expand the debate and restrictive enough to keep things reasonable:
“How many [candidates] were on enough state ballots to mathematically have a chance to capture the White House? In 1988, only two third-party candidates, in 1992 only three third-party candidates, in 1996 only four third-party candidates, in 2000 only five third-party candidates, and in 2004 only four third-party candidates were on enough state ballots to win an Electoral College majority.”
While 6 or 7 could be too many people on stage at once, some combination of ballot presence and public demand requirements would keep the numbers down to a couple of third-party candidates in addition to the usual suspects.
The current system stifles the style of the debates. All audience members are screened to allow only “soft” supporters or undecideds. (Ah, the ridiculous cult of the undecided voter…) All these softies, who agree to sit totally silent for 90 minutes, pre-submit their questions on index cards. In 2004, the “extended debate” portion of questions was limited to 30 seconds. Chew on that a moment. In selecting the leader of the free world, we limit the extended debate time to the length of a soap commercial. This isn’t a debate; it’s a bi-partisan press conference.
And who pays for this crap? In 2004,
“three airlines, a cable television network, a company that helps businesses and governments outsource information technology, and the self-crowned king of the beer-making business, Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., which also sponsored several other debates in previous years.”
Bill Moyers elaborates:
“1992: AT&T, Atlantic Richfield, Dun & Bradstreet, Ford Motor Company, Hallmark, IBM, J.P. Morgan, Philip Morris, Prudential. 1996: Anheuser Busch, Dun & Bradstreet, Lucent Technologies, Philip Morris, Sara Lee, Sprint. In 2000, Anheuser Busch, US Airways, 3Com.”
No wonder you literally didn’t hear the word “corporation” in any of 3 debates in 2000, nor anything whatsoever about NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, the drug war, homelessness, or organized labor. While the public at home doesn’t see this, there’s a reason Moyers describes these as “corporate carnivals.” George Farah, author of No Debate, explains:
FARAH: Yes. If you attend a debate site what you see are huge Anheuser Busch tents. Anheuser Busch girls in skimpy outfits and they’re passing out beer and they’re passing out pamphlets that denounce beer taxes. You have giant posters of the various corporate sponsors also passing out other materials that are promoting their goods, their products and their political issues.
MOYERS: The public at home never sees this.
FARAH: Oh, they never see this. These are the corporations who are primarily paying for the debates that tens of millions of Americans are watching. And they get to bring their clients to debate sites, entertain them. They bring them to a nice suite. And they take them to the debates and sit in the front rows of these presidential debate forums. They get tax deductions for their major contributions to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
And when I asked Frank Farenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, whether he thought it was okay for beer and tobacco companies to be hosting and sponsoring these presidential debates, he said, “Boy, you are talking to the wrong guy. I’m a lobbyist for the gambling industry.”
Frank Farenkopf, two points for honesty.
Fortunately, there are some good guys in the story. The recently-created Citizens’ Debate Commission features such ideological rivals as Mark Weisbrot, Tony Perkins, Randall Robinson, and Paul Weyrich. The Debate Commission has a great set of demands:
- Follow-up questions must be permitted in every debate.
- At least one debate must include candidate-to-candidate questioning.
- At least two debates must include rebuttals and surrebuttals.
- Response times must not be overly restrictive.
- Candidates may only exercise a limited number of vetoes concerning the selection of moderators and panelists.
- Two single moderator debates: The single moderator format focuses attention on the candidates, rather than on the questioners. A least one of the single moderator debates would include direct candidate-to-candidate questioning, loose time restrictions and minimal interference from the moderator.
- Authentic town-hall debate: An authentic town-hall debate would be organized that prohibits the screening of questions and includes a representative sampling of Americans in the audience.
- Youth debate: The first-ever youth-run and youth-oriented presidential debate would be established. Young people are increasingly dismayed by and detached from electoral politics. A youth debate could inspire millions of young adults to tune into the presidential debates, raise atypical subject matters for national discourse, and prevent the candidates from anticipating many debate questions.
- Panel debate: Historically, panel debates have allowed educated reporters to question the candidates’ policy plans and backgrounds. But rather than the panel consisting exclusively of reporters, the Citizens’ Debate Commission would assemble a diverse panel of academic, civic, artistic, religious, media, labor and business leaders to ask questions.