In the past few weeks, we've seen three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. The TV audiences have been sizable, but these four debates have provided little sizzle and even less steak.
"Candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are somewhat at fault for the desultory nature of the debates so far," wrote political reporter John Nichols for his blog on The Nation.com. "Obama is cool to the point of being frigid, hyper-cautious in his responses and so calculating that even when he delivers a zinger it sounds too rehearsed. McCain is too hot, so desperate to make a connection that he bobs about like a demented troll and steps on his own best lines."
The problem is the debate format itself. The Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation established in 1987, directs the televised presidential debates. The commission is run by former chairmen of the Democratic and Republican national committees and is funded by corporate donations. It so carefully manages the format and rules that an honest debate is impossible.
"We have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American people," proclaimed the League of Women Voters in retreating from sponsorship of a scheduled 1988 presidential debate. The League used to be in charge of the debates, but it withdrew to protest the Democrats' and Republicans' attempt to dictate every detail, right down to camera placement.
The consequences of such deceptive major party control are predictable and distressing. Real debates now have been replaced by -- in the commission's own words -- nationally televised joint appearances between nominees of the two major political parties reciting their talking points.
Since the commission is a joint creation of the Democratic and Republican parties, it naturally created rules that shut out any third party or independent candidates. It requires contenders to poll at 15 percent before they qualify for any debate.
The commission also picks the moderator, so only nicely behaved, non-confrontational people need apply. Thus, the chances of getting someone who will ask tough questions and insist upon straight answers is just about nil.
The American public can get a taste of what a real debate would look like this Sunday at 8 p.m., when C-SPAN presents a debate that includes at least three of the four third-party candidates: independent Ralph Nader, the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney and the Constitution Party's Chuck Baldwin. Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr said he has a scheduling conflict, but debate organizers say he wanted to appear only with Nader.
Obama and John McCain were invited, but they wouldn't attend on a bet. They're also probably afraid of facing the moderator of this debate, Amy Goodman, host of "Democracy Now!" and arguably the toughest, most no-nonsense broadcast journalist around.
The third-party candidates will be talking about issues that Obama and McCain won't touch. All four are against the $700 billion economic bailout and all oppose the Iraq war. Nader rails against corporate greed while McKinney promotes environmental causes. The Libertarian Party is a critic of monetary policy and wants a return to the gold standard, while the Constitution Party is a conservative, anti-abortion party that wants to "restore the government to its biblical foundations."
Imagine McCain and Obama facing these four candidates. That's why the Commission on Presidential Debates has kept third-party candidates off the stage, with the exception of Ross Perot in 1992.
So, despite the fact that both Ralph Nader and Bob Barr are on the ballot in close to 45 states, McKinney is on the ballot in 30 states and Baldwin is on in more than 35 states, they were not allowed to debate McCain and Obama.
If the debates were opened up to third-party candidates, we might have a vigorous and honest discussion about where this country needs to go. But the Democrats and Republicans who now control the presidential debates would never allow it, and our democracy suffers as a result.