As the debate over debates heats up, the Bush campaign is balking at
participation in the events proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Bush's concerns revolve around format and venues. But few in the mainstream
media have looked into the legitimate questions about the Commission,
especially whether the CPD is independent enough to decide which candidates get
The following timeline reveals a history of politicking, insider-dealing and
exclusion camouflaged behind "nonpartisan" rhetoric. Journalists should ask the
TV networks why they are ceding authority to decide whether Democrats and
Republicans face competition to a Commission so beholden to the two major
Debates are crucial to the functioning of a democracy. Recent history shows
that third-party candidates bring fresh issues and viewpoints to debates, as
well as new viewers and voters. Shouldn't decisions about who participates in
debates be made by independent journalists and genuinely nonpartisan civic
organizations -- not by the two most powerful parties themselves?
1985: DEBATES OR "JOINT APPEARANCES"
The origins of the Commission on Presidential Debates can be traced to 1985
discussions between the national chairs of the Democratic and Republican
parties, Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, which led to an agreement to cooperate
in the production of "nationally televised joint appearances conducted between
the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the two major political
parties…. It is our conclusion that future joint appearances should be
principally and jointly sponsored and conducted by the Republican and
Democratic Committees." (Joint Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential
Candidate Joint Appearances, 11/26/85)
1987: "STRENGTHEN THE TWO-PARTY SYSTEM"
At a Feb. 18, 1987 news conference in Washington, GOP chair Fahrenkopf and
Democratic chair Kirk announce the CPD's formation, with themselves as co-
chairs (positions they still hold). "Mr. Fahrenkopf indicated that the new
Commission on Presidential Debates…was not likely to look with favor on
including third-party candidates in the debates," reports the New York Times
("Democrats and Republicans Form Panel to Hold Presidential Debates,"
2/19/87). "Mr. Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel
should exclude third-party candidates from the debates." "As a party
chairman,'' says Kirk, ''it's my responsibility to strengthen the two-party
system." ("The Debate Debate," New York Times, 2/22/87)
1988: OUT OF THEIR LEAGUE
The CPD takes complete control of the debates, after the League of Women Voters
refuses to let the Republican and Democratic campaigns dictate terms of the
1988 events and ceases cooperating with the Commission: "The League of Women
Voters is withdrawing its 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."
(League news release, 10/3/88)
1992: RECORD–BREAKING AUDIENCES
After the Clinton and Bush campaigns negotiate a behind-the-scenes deal that
includes the participation of Ross Perot (each side calculating that his
presence would benefit them), the CPD invites Perot to the debates. At the time
of the invitation, his standing in the four major polls averages between 7 and
9 percent support ("Tentative Deal Set On Debates," Washington Post, 10/2/92;
polls from CBS/New York Times, NBC, ABC, Gallup/CNN/USA Today). The three
presidential debates are watched by record-breaking TV audiences, averaging 90
million viewers, with the audience growing for each successive debate.
Perot is excluded in a two-party deal sanctioned by the CPD, according to
George Stephanopolous. The Clinton aide revealed his campaign's negotiations
with the Dole campaign in a February 1997 panel discussion on the '96 election
("Campaign for President: The Managers Look at '96," Harvard University
Institute of Politics).
STEPHANOLOPOLOUS: "[The Dole campaign] didn't have leverage going into
negotiations. They were behind. They needed to make sure Perot wasn't in it. As
long as we would agree to Perot not being in it, we could get everything else
we wanted going in. We got our time frame, we got our length, we got our
CHRIS MATTHEWS: "Why didn't you have the debates when people were watching the
STEPHANOPOLOUS: "Because we didn't want them to pay attention. And the debates
were a metaphor for the campaign. We wanted the debates to be a non-event."
The 1996 debates have shrinking audiences that average 41 million viewers, less
than half that of the '92 debates.
2000: 15 PERCENT BARRIER ANNOUNCED
The CPD announces that it will exclude candidates from presidential debates
unless they have 15 percent support in national polls on the eve of the debates
(CPD news release, 1/6/00). Such a threshold would have barred Perot from the
1992 debates (he finished with 19 percent of the vote), and would have excluded
Reform candidate Jesse Ventura from the 1998 gubernatorial debates in Minnesota
(at 10 percent in polls before the debates, he won the election with 37
For more information, see http://www.fair.org/debates.html