In a campaign era dominated by mass media and political consultants, presidential candidates habitually deliver rehearsed slogans and pre-packaged sound bites during stump speeches and interviews. Focus-group-tested campaign commercials flood the airwaves, and campaign managers dress their candidates in argyle sweaters and alpha-male earth tones. The general election presidential debates – the most important electoral events in the process of selecting a president – are supposed to provide voters with an informative break from these canned statements and contrived appearances. But, because of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the presidential debates have become deceptive charades that restrict both voter choice and subject matters of political discourse.
Presidential debates were run by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters until 1988, when the national Republican and Democratic parties seized control by establishing the bipartisan CPD to host the debates. Co-chaired by the former heads of the Republican and Democratic parties, the CPD secretly and deliberately capitulates to the demands of the Republican and Democratic nominees.
Every four years, to comply with federal regulations, the CPD proposes debate formats and publishes candidate selection criteria. Questions concerning third-party participation and debate formats, however, are ultimately resolved behind closed doors, between negotiators for the Republican and Democratic candidates. These negotiators draft secret debate contracts called Memoranda of Understanding that dictate precisely how the debates will be run -- from decreeing who can participate, to selecting compliant moderators, to requiring the pre-screening of town-hall questions, to stipulating the height of the podiums. The CPD obediently implements the Memoranda of Understanding while posing as a nonpartisan sponsor.
Such unbridled candidate control substantially undermines voter education. The Republican and Democratic nominees employ stilted and unrevealing formats that prohibit the candidates from talking to each other; they exclude popular third-party and independent challengers who the American people want to see; and they avoid discussing many important national issues, particularly issues in which the major party candidates' views are at odds with the majority of voters', such as free trade. Walter Cronkite called the presidential debates an “unconscionable fraud” and accused the major party candidates of “sabotaging the electoral process.”
Americans are getting tired of these stage-managed pseudo-debates, and they are turning off their television sets. Twenty-five million fewer people watched the 2000 presidential debates than watched the 1992 presidential debates, and less than 30 percent of American households tuned in to the presidential debates in 2000, compared to 60 percent in 1980.
The Republican and Democratic candidates do not suffer political consequences for ruining the public's most valued voter education tool because the CPD deceptively shields them from public criticism. Assuming full responsibility for the presidential debates, the CPD masquerades as a nonpartisan democracy-maximizing organization and claims to be entirely free of candidate control. Voters and the media blame the CPD – not the major party candidates – for the debates' defects.
The major party candidates could sponsor their own presidential debates if they wanted to control them. They could hold debates in their living rooms, exclude all third party challengers, employ dreary formats, and ignore difficult issues. Accordingly, if the major party candidates hosted their own debates, they would be held accountable for them. Voters would blame the Republican and Democratic nominees for the lack of authentic discussion, the exclusion of popular third-party challengers, and the avoidance of pressing national issues. The major party candidates would likely pay a price on Election Day. To avoid such accountability, the major party candidates participate in the CPD's deceptive debates.
This deception unacceptably harms our democracy, and that is why seventeen national civic leaders from the left, center and right of political spectrum – including Paul Weyrich, Chellie Pingree of Common Cause, Alan Keyes, Tom Gerety of the Brennan Center for Justice, Bay Buchanan, Randall Robinson, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Jehmu Green of Rock the Vote – recently formed the Citizens' Debate Commission (www.citizensdebate.org). Bolstered by an advisory board comprised of over fifty civic groups, the Citizens' Debate Commission aims to sponsor presidential debates that serve the American people, not political parties, first. The Citizens' Debate Commission will operate with full transparency and reverse the decline in debate viewership. It will employ engaging and innovative formats, set fair candidate selection criteria, and address a variety of pressing national issues. Through the Citizens' Debate Commission, voter education and public accountability will be restored to the presidential debates.
John B. Anderson, a former Congressman and chair of the Center for Voting and Democracy, and George Farah, executive director of Open Debates and author of the forthcoming book “No Debate,” are directors of the Citizens' Debate Commission.