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The Problem with the Debates

Why presidential debates have become more like bi-partisan press conferences.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain greets Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama at a forum on national service at Columbia University. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

The lead up to this year’s first presidential debate was filled with theatrics. On Wednesday, after citing a “historic crisis in the financial system,” Republican presidential nominee John McCain announced, “I’m directing my campaign to work with the Obama campaign and the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to delay Friday night’s debate until we have taken action to address this crisis.”

Later that afternoon, Democratic nominee Barack Obama responded with some theatrics of his own, “With respect to the debates, it’s my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who, in approximately 40 days, will be responsible for dealing with this mess. And I think that it is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.” Today, McCain announced that he will head to the University of Mississippi for the debate. The debates are the “Superbowl” of the election season. Some estimate that up to 70 million people will be tuning in tonight.

Debate organizers are attempting to spice up the face-offs this year by partnering with MySpace and WebMD, but the debates in 2004 were dull enough to make the prospect of an exciting debate this year questionable. Through tightly controlled debate rules, lack of input from anyone but the two major party’s campaigns, and the restriction on third-party candidate participation, the CPD ensures that the “debates” are no debate at all.

The first of the general election debates tonight will be very different from the long series of multi-issue, multimedia, multi-candidate debates viewers saw during the primary season. Instead, the audience will likely see two candidates in a very controlled environment. The CPD sounds very official and independent—its title suggests an organization dedicated solely the important role debates play in our democracy. But the organization is little more than a sham.

For years, debates were conducted by the League of Women Voters (LWV). Now, under the CPD, the debates have essentially become “bi-partisan press conferences,” according to George Farah, executive director of Open Debates and author of the book, No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. “[The two major national parties] did not like that a women’s organization was telling their boys what to do,” Farah said.

In 1988, the CPD took over from the LWV, which assigned debate formats, moderators, and audience questions in full transparency. That hasn’t been the policy of the CPD, since they simply execute a contract drafted in secret by party leaders. In other words, the control over the debates lies heavily in the hands of party leaders, even allowing them to select the debate moderators.

One of the first debates conducted by the CPD was a town hall presidential debate in 1992. It was one of the most fascinating the public had seen. Citizens were allowed to formulate their own questions spontaneously and ask follow-ups. On of the most telling moments in the entire campaign was when President George H.W. Bush couldn’t answer a question how the national debt affected him personally. That moment may have been one of the tipping factors in his loss of that election.

For the parties, the outcome was undesirable to say the least. After the 1992 debate, the two parties pressured the CPD to institute policies to ensure such embarrassing moments would never happen again. Research by Open Debates, an organization dedicated to democratizing the debates, suggested that this year’s format was predetermined by a private meeting between leaders of each major party. After the meeting, the privately determined contract was handed over to CPD for them to execute.

Thanks to pressure from groups like Open Debates, this year the moderators were selected by the CPD and announced without party input. But the CPD still made poor choices. The presidential debates will be moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, and CBS’s Bob Schieffer—three rather dull old white dudes from establishment media. The CPD selected PBS’s Gwen Ifill, a long-respected journalist who is a woman of color, to moderate the debate of lesser importance, the vice presidential debate.

The rules themselves seem to restrict debate rather than enable it. In 2004, the candidates were not allowed to address one another directly and were restricted from asking follow up questions. At the time, Lehrer noted the drab rules by saying, “For each question there can only be a two-minute response, a 90- second rebuttal and, at my discretion, a discussion extension of one minute.” Hardly enough time to do more than spit out premeditated sound bytes.

While candidates will be allowed to address one another directly this year, past exciting debate moments have caused changes in rules that virtually eliminate the chance for dramatic moments. McCain’s threat not to attend the debate caused pundits to imagine a dramatic scene of an empty podium where McCain would have stood had he attended, but CPD’s rules explicitly forbid such a scenario. When LWV invited presidential candidate for the National Unity Party John B. Anderson in 1980, President Jimmy Carter refused to debate. Instead Republican candidate Ronald Reagan debated Anderson solo. The moment was so embarrassing that future rules forbid a debate from happening if one of the invited candidates doesn’t show up.

Another way that the CPD unnecessarily restricts debates is that it excludes third-party candidates. After Ross Perot participated in the 1992 debate, they excluded third-party candidates unless they poll at 15 percent nationally, even though the Federal Election Campaign Act says that any candidate polling at five percent of national polls qualifies for federal matching funds.

An August Zogby poll found that 59 percent of those polled thought Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr and independent candidate Ralph Nader should be included in the presidential debates. At the time, Barr was polling at 6 percent, but more recent polls have put both Barr and Nader between 1 and 2 percent. “If you’re excluded from debates you’re ignored by the media,” Farah said.

Debates also collect a series of corporate sponsorships. This year, as with every election year since Anheuser-Busch became a sponsor in 1996, a debate will be held in St. Louis, MO, even though many people hoped to hold a debate in New Orleans to highlight the city’s slow recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Apparently, the reason the debates continue to be held in St. Louis is because the perennial sponsor of the debates is located there. Corporate executives often earn perks like front row seats to the debates.

Nevertheless, there are signs of progress. Already many are publishing questions that should be asked, and even if those questions probably won’t be, at least people are debating the issues. Current TV will even incorporate Twitter feeds into its debate coverage. Farah believes the debates will be better this year.Given the CPD’s changes that allow candidates to talk directly to one another, the debate will surely be more exciting than the snoozefest of 2004. The presidential debates are slowly becoming more democratic, but it seems there’s still a long way to go.

Kay Steiger is an Associate Editor at Campus Progress.

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