If you feel as though the political system in the United States is restrictive and limits the possible choices for the voters, you need to read this: behold the spectacle.
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a group that since 1987 has sponsored and produced debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates. Despite their pledge to provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners, the CPD in actuality exists solely to perpetuate the two-party system in the United States, restricting the debate formats, questions, and participants.
A Brief History
From 1976 to 1984, the League of Women Voters organized a series of debates for candidates for the presidency of the United States of America. During these three campaigns, the League openly supported popular independent candidates by inviting them into the debate (including John Anderson in 1980) and also rejected influences from the major parties on the format and methodology of the debate. This independence went so far that on September 21, 1980, the League sponsored and televised a debate between John Anderson and Ronald Reagan, actually excluding Jimmy Carter from the debate because of his refusal to debate Anderson.
In 1984, the major parties attempted to wrestle control of the debates from the League of Women Voters by hijacking the nomination process for the panelists for the debates. This action was the result of a series of meetings between Republican National Committee chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Mannat, in which the two decided on general principle that the two parties should control the debates. Their attempt to hijack the process, by repeatedly rejecting suggested panelists provided by the League of Women Voters, resulted in the League holding a press conference outlining this hijacking effort. After the press conference, both parties backed off and the debates went on, albeit contentiously.
After the 1984 debates, in which both major candidates (Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan) felt as though the debate questions were biased and demanding, the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic National Committee (Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Paul G. Kirk Jr, respectively) organized a Commission on National Elections in order to re-evaluate the role of joint candidate appearances in presidential politics. The chairman of the commission was Robert S. Strauss, Jimmy Carter's 1980 campaign chairman whose vociferous objection to the inclusion of John Anderson in the debates led to Carter's exclusion from the September 21, 1980 debate.
Unsurprisingly, the commission came to a single conclusion. In their final report in April 1985, the commission stated the following:
In the post-nomination period, the commission believes that American citizens have come to expect joint appearances by the major party nominees for the presidency. These joint appearances should be made a permanent part of the electoral process. They are such an important factor that they should not be left to the vagaries and uncertainties of each presidential election but rather, to the extent possible, should be institutionalized.
The commission believes that this institutionalization is most likely to take place if the two political parties assume direct responsibility for sponsoring the joint appearances. although each nominee must ultimately decide whether to take part, the parties are in the strongest position to enlist their participation by attempting to secure commitments before they are nominated. In 1988, for the first time in 20 years, there will be no incumbent president running for reelection, thus offering a unique opportunity for the two parties to state well in advance of the 1988 election their commitment to ensuring that joint television appearances will be held in the general election period of that and subsequent presidential election years.
To summarize: the committee recommended that the Democratic Party and Republican Party take over the debate process. There is no mention of additional choices in politics here. Basically, the committee suggested turning the entire henhouse of open political discourse over to the foxes of the ruling parties.
Acting on these recommendations, on November 26, 1985 Fahrenkopf and Kirk issued a Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential Candidate Joint Appearances. This one page document actually had the gall to state that the most fair way to conduct a debate is to let the participants set up all of the rules and questions:
It is our bipartisan view that a primary responsibility of each major political party is to educate and inform the American electorate of its fundamental philosophy and policies as well as its candidates' positions on critical issues. One of the most effective means of fulfilling that responsibility is through nationally televised joint appearances conducted between the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the two major political parties during general election campaigns. Therefore, to better fulfill our parties' responsibilities for educating and informing the American public and to strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process, it is our conclusion that future joint appearances should be principally and jointly sponsored and conducted by the Republican and Democratic National Committees.
This process reached a culmination on February 18, 1987, when the Democratic and Republican National Committees issued a joint press release stating the formation of the CPD. As if placing the debates in the hands of the two large parties themselves wasn't crazy enough, the foxes actually danced in the henhouse: Fahrenkopf and Kirk actually named themselves cochairs of the CPD.
Of course, the League of Women Voters wasn't giving up without a fight...
The 1988 Debate Debacle
When the 1988 campaign rolled around, both the CPD and the League of Women Voters intended to sponsor presidential debates. After prolonged negotiations between both sides, the two groups reached an agreement: the CPD would sponsor the first debate between George Bush and Michael Dukakis and the League would sponsor the second one.
However, this was not to be. Since the CPD was just a conglomeration of the two parties, once the CPD decided a debate format, both the Bush and Dukakis campaigns issued memos to the League of Women's Voters, stating that the format used for the CPD debate must be used in the League debate. That included the composition of the panel, which the two campaigns insisted must change from journalists to members of each party hand-picked by the two campaigns.
Here's the League's response, issued on October 2, 1988:
The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates ... because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.
Wait... it gets better!
In 1988, there were four candidates who were on enough ballots to win the presidency: George Bush of the Republican Party, Michael Dukakis of the Democratic Party, Lenora Fulani of the New Alliance Party, and Ron Paul of the Libertarian Party. Since each of these candidates had put in the effort to be recognized as legitimate presidential candidates, it seems reasonable that they would be involved in the debate process, right?
On October 1, 1988, the CPD issued a Memorandum of Understanding outlining the rules of the debate. In no way were Lenora Fulani or Ron Paul even mentioned, even though they were both legitimate candidates for the presidency as created by the United States Constitution. Allowing Fulani or Paul into the debates would not have significantly hurt either candidate; keeping them out only served to repress more voices in the political process.
The 1992 Debate Debacle
The 1992 presidential election featured an incumbent, George Bush, who was facing a deep recession and a charismatic young challenger in Bill Clinton. To make matters worse, in mid May both candidates were losing in the polls to challenger H. Ross Perot. When Perot temporarily withdrew from the race in late June, Bill Clinton's poll numbers rose 14 percent, whereas George Bush's poll numbers rose only 3 percent.
When Perot re-entered the race on October 1, 1992 and immediately received approximately 10 percent of public support in polling, the Bush campaign was thrilled, since it was clear that the majority of Perot's supporters had switched to Bill Clinton after Perot's earlier exit. Since the Bush campaign was deathly afraid of an impending defeat in November, they petitioned the CPD to allow Perot entry into the debates. Clinton obviously didn't want this, but they were also equally afraid of a tremendous public backlash, so they also agreed to this change in policy.
Even then, the CPD wasn't willing to include Perot in the debates; they offered on October 5, 1992 to include Perot only in the first debate, then re-evaluate the situation before the second and third debates. The reason? They were concerned about setting a precedent that would require them to include any candidate that polled at 7 percent in future years; they were deathly afraid of a third player at the table. However, at the strong urging of the Bush campaign and the indifference of the Clinton campaign, Perot was invited to all three debates on October 7, 1992.
If you don't believe that the debates can have a significant impact on elections, note that Perot's poll numbers were hovering around 7 percent in early October, but by early November, after "winning" two of the three debates, Perot took home 19 percent of the popular vote. Clearly, independent candidates can have a major impact on politics, but Perot was only included because Bush wanted him there.
The 1996 Debate Debacle
Bill Clinton was destroying Bob Dole in the polls, carrying a 26 percent lead into early September 1996. However, there were four other candidates that were on the ballot in enough states to win an electoral majority: Ross Perot of the Reform Party, Harry Browne of the Libertarian Party, John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party and Howard Phillips of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.
Of these candidates, Perot was clearly the most established: he was on the ballot in all 50 states and had received $29 million in federal matching funds for his 1996 campaign. Beyond this, Perot was polling at virtually the same level as he had in 1992 pre-debate polls, and 76 percent of eligible voters in a September 19, 1996 Zogby poll wanted Perot included in the 1996 presidential debates.
Of course, Perot was not included in the 1996 presidential debates, and it almost goes without saying that Browne, Phillips, and Hagelin were excluded as well.
Why wasn't Perot included? Neither candidate wanted Perot involved and hurting their campaign. Clinton held a 26 percent lead and didn't want to upset the race with a third party wild card; Dole was afraid that Perot's populist campaign finance reform rhetoric would steal even more voters from his camp. Both parties requested that the CPD did not include Perot in the debate, and since the parties control the CPD, Perot was not included in the debate.
2000 And Beyond...
Naturally, the 1996 exclusion of Perot caused a great outcry against the policies of the CPD, so on January 6, 2000, the CPD announced that third-party candidates would have to reach 15 percent in a majority of significant pre-debate polls to receive an invitation to the debates. This absurdly high number essentially closed the door permanently on any third party inclusion in a CPD debate.
Besides George W. Bush and Al Gore, there were five candidates with enough ballot coverage to win the electoral college. Among these, both Ralph Nader of the Green Party and independent Pat Buchanan inspired a significant amount of press coverage and attention and both polled in the four to five percent range nationally prior to the debates. Both candidates could have added a differing perspective on the debates: Nader championed consumer causes and environmentalism, while Buchanan promoted a clear conservative fiscal and social policy well to the right of George W. Bush. However, only Bush and Gore were even eligible to participate.
Gore and Bush participated in three presidential debates. These debates attracted the smallest audience in the history of televised presidential debates, as both candidates clearly had more they agreed on than they differed on.
This policy was continued for the 2004 elections and it seems as though it will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Changing Debate Formats and Issues
Rather than escape into a boring diatribe on the nuances of how the CDP has damaged the actual format and structure of the debates, let's look at three distinct examples that clearly demonstrate the negative influence that the CDP has had on open political debate.
In 1980, the League of Women Voters chose Bill Moyers as their debate moderator. Moyers was chosen due to his integrity and willingness to ask tough questions, which added more than a bit of fire to the Reagan/Anderson debate. Moyer repeatedly asked direct, pointed follow-up questions of both candidates and at various points caught each candidate far off their guard. Meanwhile, since 1992, the CDP has used Jim Lehrer as their sole moderator, not providing any sort of rotation of moderators. Lehrer, host of PBS's News Hour, is known for his passive interview style and tendency towards softball questions, something that both candidates find appealing.
In 1984, a major component of the Ronald Reagan/Walter Mondale debates were repeated rebuttals on the same question, allowing the candidates to literally debate one another by pointing out flaws in opposing arguments. These sessions on individual issues would go on for as long as thirty minutes, with each side being awarded equal and proportionately spaced time. At the end of the debates, both candidates had been caught off guard and flustered multiple times and their political perspectives had been laid bare for the public. By the 2000 debates, each side was only allowed 90 seconds to respond to questions from Lehrer, without rebuttals. This format eliminates the prospect for debate, instead leaving both candidates to simply repeat rehearsed answers to questions.
The "town hall" format, in which audience members are selected to ask questions, has been a long-time popular debate format, and it was used for one debate in 1992 at the request of the Clinton camp to show off his interpersonal skills. The original 1992 debate allowed the audience members to ask anything they wished and were allowed follow-up questions, too. However, by 1996, this had changed: follow-up questions were no longer allowed. By the time of the 2000 "town hall" debate, the audience participants had to submit their questions in advance to Lehrer, who selected the questions in advance and called upon people by name, who would read the questions off of cards; even worse, the candidates had received the questions in advance.
In each case, the format of the debate has made the debate less informative to the American voter and thus less useful than the earlier League of Women Voters debates.
Fight The Power!
So, what can you do as an average citizen to combat this active destruction of the presidential debate process?
Don't watch the debates; spend the time reading up on candidates instead. Go to a nonpartisan candidate comparison site and spend the hour that you might have otherwise wasted on the CDP debates learning about how all of the candidates actually stand on a wide variety of issues, not just the ones picked by the candidates themselves to discuss.
Inform television outlets that you refuse to watch the debates in their current form. Tell them that you will gladly watch their election coverage and other political news, but that you are boycotting their coverage of such closed debates. Advertising dollars speak for a lot, and when a significant loss in viewership is experienced, it can be very hard on the bottom lines of the networks that broadcast this fraudulent dreck.
Ask your local newspaper to profile all eligible candidates. Encourage them to send a questionnaire to all candidates on the ballot in your state and then print the candidate's responses, including any candidates that failed to participate.
Vote for a third party. This is perhaps the most important thing you can do as an American citizen today. A vote for either the Republican or Democratic candidate is a wasted vote; if you can't discern the difference between the two politically on issues that matter to you, then don't vote for either one. Remember, the Libertarian Party focuses on individual rights and liberties, the Green Party concerns itself with a clean environment, and the Constitution Party wants to return to the basic rights and liberties of the Constitution; if you believe strongly on these things, voting for a Republican or a Democrat is throwing your vote away.