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The Illegitimate Debates of 2012

Carl Gibson

Imagine going out to dinner in a restaurant that only served Coke and Pepsi to drink. What if the establishment had strict rules against the serving of coffee, tea, juice, water, milk, or any other beverage, and was the only restaurant in town? Wouldn’t it be better to just find a new restaurant that offered multiple choices to customers? The same comparison can be made about the bland, exclusionary, corporate-sponsored presidential debates happening this month. You should ignore them, unless you’re interested in hearing rehearsed sound bites instead of challenging questions.

Just as one of Devo’s co-creators said that choosing between Obama and Romney this year is like choosing Coke or Pepsi, the illusion of choice is continuously perpetuated by the undemocratic Commission on Presidential Debates, or the CPD. While its website tries to present itself as a non-profit organization unaffiliated with any political party, the CPD is actually the brainchild of former DNC chairman Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, who was chairman of the RNC during Reagan’s tenure and is currently the chief lobbyist for the gambling industry. The CPD is nothing but a corporate- funded creation of both corporate-funded parties, to strengthen their own positions and silence alternative candidates different from the two major parties.

The original debate sponsors, the League of Women Voters, famously stood up to the major parties when they tried to force joint sponsorship of the debate process and hamstring the format and moderator selection. In 1984, both parties vetoed 68 of the league’s choice for debate moderator, until the league called a press conference blasting both parties for trying to soften the presidential debates. And after that, no moderator proposal was rejected, because neither party wanted to be seen as undemocratic.

So the next year, both parties launched the Commission on National Elections, headed up by a former Republican congressman and a former DNC chairman, which suggested in its report that both parties should take control of the presidential debate process. And in 1986, both the DNC and RNC ratified an agreement that deemed the debates would be administered by the two parties. The CPD was formed 16 months later and chaired by Kirk and Fahrenkopf.

In 1988, the league and the CPD agreed that the CPD would sponsor the first debate, and the league the second. But when the Bush and Dukakis campaign submitted a lengthy memorandum of understanding that dictated everything from who would be invited, how the audience was to be full of hand-picked partisan voters instead of civic leaders to what color the numbers on the countdown clock would be, the league withdrew their sponsorship. In a press release, they accused the CPD of “perpetuating a fraud on the American voter” and said they wouldn’t be complicit in the “hoodwinking of the American public.” The rigged two-party debates have been the only option for voters ever since.

The campaigns of both Democratic and Republican candidates are still dictating every last detail about each debate in secretive, back-door agreements that the CPD always unilaterally adapts. Recent grassroots pressure has several watchdog groups demanding to see the secret debate agreement for the 2012 debates between the Obama and Romney campaigns. But don't count on the CPD, which is currently co-chaired by Fahrenkopf and Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, to release it.

The most exclusionary tactic of the CPD is enforcing a 15% rule for third-party candidates to be included in any debate, which they’ve done since the 2000 election. In any election, a third party candidate that receives at least 5% of the popular vote will qualify for millions in public campaign financing in their next bid for office. But if the threshold for being heard in a debate is 15%, that means taxpayers spend millions of dollars on political campaigns that we still never get to hear from.

If the CPD instead went by poll results, where over 64% of those polled in 2000 wanted Nader in the debates, then third party candidates like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, who are on the ballot in enough state to win an electoral college majority, could be seen and heard by the voting public. But as long as the 15% rule exists, both major parties will always monopolize the debates and ensure that only their candidates get to be seen and heard on a national stage.

When Jesse Ventura ran for governor of Minnesota as a third party candidate in 1998, his approval shot up after his performance in the debates, which eventually netted him 36% of the vote and the election. No matter what the pundits and the party hacks say, third party candidates do have a shot at winning, only if the debates were set up to include them.

Until the two corporate parties relinquish control of the CPD and allow other candidates to have more of a say, every 4 years will always include the same charade this time of year. These debates shouldn't be treated as legitimate political education until all those who have a shot at winning the electoral college get to debate the other major party candidates.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Carl Gibson

Carl Gibson is a freelance journalist, columnist, and editor primarily covering political and economic news. His investigative reporting and opinion writing has appeared in CNN, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Barron's, MarketWatch, The Independent, The Houston Chronicle, and NPR, among others.

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