Comment: Commission on Presidential Debates : proof of collusion

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Commission on Presidential Debates : proof of collusion

What is the CPD?

The League of Women Voters served as a genuinely nonpartisan presidential debate sponsor from 1976 until 1984. The League courageously included popular independent candidates and prohibited the major-party campaigns from manipulating debate formats.

In 1980, for example, the League invited independent candidate John B. Anderson to participate in a presidential debate, even though President Jimmy Carter adamantly refused to debate him. Rather than acquiesce to the President’s objections, the League hosted a debate between Anderson and Republican nominee Ronald Reagan that attracted over 55 million viewers.

Four years later, the Republican and Democratic campaigns vetoed 68 of the moderators proposed by the League to pose questions during the first debate. The League held a press conference and lambasted the campaigns for having "totally abused" the process. As a result of the ensuing public outcry, the campaigns accepted all of the League's proposed moderators for the next debate.

And in 1988, the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns drafted the first secret debate contract -- a "Memorandum of Understanding" that dictated who could participate and under what conditions. The League refused to implement the contract and issued a blistering press release, stating that "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."

It is precisely because the League had the courage to resist the demands of the major-party candidates that the CPD was created. The Republican and Democratic parties would not tolerate a debate sponsor that insisted on challenging formats or the inclusion of third-party candidates.

In 1986, the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee ratified an agreement "for the parties to take over presidential debates." In 1987, the chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties incorporated the CPD. In 1988, the CPD seized control of the presidential debates from the League and has sponsored every presidential debate since.

The CPD claims to "provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners." In reality, however, the CPD awards substantial control of the presidential debates to the Republican and Democratic campaigns, which often insist on uninspiring formats and the exclusion of third-party candidates.

The CPD is currently co-chaired by Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry. Fahrenkopf is the former chair of the Republican National Committee, and McCurry is the former press secretary to President Bill Clinton. Several other members of the CPD are particularly loyal to the two major parties and have sometimes expressed contempt of third-party candidates. In 2002, for example, then-CPD director Alan Simpson said, "The purpose of the commission, it seems to me, is to try to preserve the two-party system that works very well, and if you like the multiparty system, then go to Sri Lanka and India and Indonesia. I think it's obvious that independent candidates mess things up."

In addition to their partisan ties, many directors of the CPD have close ties to corporations. Co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf is the nation's leading gambling industry lobbyist, and co-chair Mike McCurry is a senior partner at major lobbying firm. Not surprisingly, the debates are now primarily funded through tax-deductible corporate contributions, and debate sites have become corporate carnivals, where sponsoring companies like Anheuser-Busch market their products.

The CPD demonstrates its subservience to the two major parties during the debate negotiation process. Every four years, Republican and Democratic negotiators meet behind closed-doors and draft secret contracts that dictate many of the terms of the presidential debates. The CPD routinely implements the contracts and conceals them from the public. In fact, the CPD replaced the League as presidential debate sponsor by implementing the same 1988 Memorandum of Understanding that the League had so vociferously rejected.

In 1996, for example, three-quarters of eligible voters supported the inclusion of third-party candidate Ross Perot in the presidential debates. Republican nominee Bob Dole demanded the exclusion of Perot because Dole thought Perot would take votes from him. Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, meanwhile, desired the smallest possible audience for the debates because he was comfortably leading in the polls. So, Clinton agreed to exclude Perot on the condition that he could control the schedule and format of the debates. As a result of that agreement, Perot was excluded, follow-up questions were prohibited, one debate was canceled, and the remaining two debates were deliberately scheduled opposite the baseball playoffs, producing the smallest audience in presidential debate history.

Ultimately, as a result of CPD control, the presidential debates often fail to live up to their potential. Fewer debates are held than necessary to educate voters. Candidates that voters want to see are often excluded. Format restrictions often allow candidates to recite memorized soundbites and avoid actual debate.