FOR THE LAST 16 years, the Republican and Democratic parties have deceptively controlled the presidential debates, and American voters have been the losers in the process.
In 1996, for example, Republican nominee Bob Dole and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton ruined the presidential debates before they even started. During debate negotiations, Dole demanded the exclusion of Reform Party nominee Ross Perot, even though Perot had received $29 million in taxpayers' funds for his campaign and over three-quarters of eligible voters wanted him included. Clinton, meanwhile, desired the smallest possible audience for the debates -- what George Stephanopolous called a "nonevent" -- because he was comfortably leading in the polls.
As a result of their agreement, Perot was excluded, follow-up questions were prohibited, one debate was canceled, and the remaining two debates were deliberately scheduled opposite the World Series, producing the smallest audience in presidential debate history.
The American people never knew why a candidate they wanted to see was excluded, why the moderator did not challenge the candidates' misleading statements with follow-up questions, or why the debates were held on the same night as the World Series. Dole and Clinton were able to conceal their manipulation of the debates because of the complicity of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The commission, which claims to "have no relationship with any political party or candidate," was created by the Republican and Democratic parties. In 1986, the two parties' national committees ratified an agreement "to take over the presidential debates."
Fifteen months later, then-Republican Party chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then-Democratic Party chair Paul Kirk incorporated the commission, and they have co-chaired the organization ever since.
Every four years, the commission submits to the shared demands of the Democratic and Republican candidates. Behind closed-doors, negotiators for the major party nominees jointly draft secret debate contracts called Memoranda of Understanding that dictate precisely how the debates will be structured -- from who gets to participate to who will ask the questions to the temperature in the auditoriums. The commission merely implements and conceals the contracts, shielding the major party candidates from public criticism.
Walter Cronkite called the debates an "unconscionable fraud" and accused the candidates of "sabotaging the electoral process."
The consequences of this Republican-Democratic collusion are not just limited to the exclusion of popular third-party candidates. Under the commission's tenure, debate formats have become stilted and unrevealing.
The Republican and Democratic nominees handpick compliant moderators, artificially limit response times, require the screening of town-hall questions, and even prohibit themselves from talking to each. The final product amounts to little more than an exchange of 90-second soundbites in response to predictable questions.
The manipulation of formats and the exclusion of popular candidates have led to debates that fail to address pressing national issues. During the 2000 presidential debates, the words "free trade," "immigration," "transportation/traffic," "corporate crime," "drug war," "homeless," and "gun control/rights" were never even mentioned, and "poverty" was only mentioned once.
By contrast, Social Security and prescription drugs under Medicare -- topics that resonate almost exclusively with senior citizens, many of whom live in the swing state of Florida -- were mentioned 67 and 118 times respectively.
Predictably, debate viewership has plummeted under the Commission on Presidential Debates sponsorship. Twenty-five million fewer people watched the 2000 presidential debates than watched the 1992 debates.
The commission's concealment of the major party candidates' instructions is instrumental to their implementation. If the major party candidates openly hosted their own debates -- rather than hide behind an obedient commission masquerading as a nonpartisan sponsor -- at least they would be held accountable for them. The major party candidates would be blamed if uninspiring formats were used, if a popular candidate was excluded, or if important issues were ignored, and the prospect of upsetting voters would compel the candidates to host more democratic debates.
This year, a coalition of 60 civic groups formed a genuinely nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission to host transparent and informative presidential debates. The Citizens' Debate Commission -- comprised of diverse civic leaders such as Tom Gerety of the Brennan Center for Justice, Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, former FEC General Counsel Larry Noble, Bay Buchanan of The American Cause, TransAfrica Forum founder Randall Robinson, and Jehmu Greene of Rock the Vote -- has announced sites and dates for presidential debates to be held in colleges around the country.
Those debates would feature engaging and innovative formats, include the candidates that a majority of eligible voters want to see, and address a variety of pressing national issues. Now, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry must decide whether to courageously participate in real presidential debates that maximize voter education or to manipulate the debates and hide behind an unsuitable commission.
Jesse Ventura is the former governor of Minnesota. George Farah is executive director of Open Debates and author of "No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates."
© 2004 Boston Globe