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Why the Presidential Debates Will Suck Even Though They Don’t Have To

'Where the CPD-run debates excel is in serving the goals of the party elders and lobbyists who run the commission and who value the smooth functioning of their political parties over the public interest.' (Photo illustration by The Intercept/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have theoretically agreed to three debates. But the value of those debates will be dramatically limited because the Commission on Presidential Debates, which runs them, is a private organization controlled by elites from the two major parties whose goal is to protect their standard-bearers.

And under the guidance of the commission, presidential debates have become echo chambers for the two major party candidates to repeat familiar talking points and lob rehearsed one-liners, rarely deviating from their scripts.

Each cycle, the CPD decides not just the time and location of the debates, but the format and who will ask the questions. Meanwhile, the Republican and Democratic campaigns also negotiate a joint Memorandum of Understanding laying out a host of details about how the candidates are to be treated. Although the CPD claims that the MOUs are not binding on the organization, the contracts themselves specify that if the commission does not abide by them, the campaigns reserve the right to seek an alternative sponsor.

We're at the point of no return.

That means Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will find the terms to their liking — and the American public will be cheated out of its best chance to see the major candidates engage in a robust discussion of the issues facing the country.


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But these debates could be far better. Among the most often-cited possible improvements: They could allow for longer response times; require candidates to ask each other open-ended questions; invite third parties; and be moderated by panelists who are experts in various subject areas and who are free to aggressively follow up on candidate responses, pushing them to dig down into policy questions.

The single easiest change would be to pick knowledgeable, confrontational moderators. By contrast, Jim Lehrer, a milquetoast PBS anchor who serves on the CPD’s board, has been chosen to moderate the debates 12 times. His performance in a 2012 Obama-Romney debate — where he asked overly broad questions and repeatedly allowed both candidates to simply talk over his attempts to intervene– was appropriately savaged by media critics.

One could just imagine how such a weak moderator would try, and fail, to corral the bombastic Donald Trump in his debates with Hillary Clinton.

Where the CPD-run debates excel is in serving the goals of the party elders and lobbyists who run the commission and who value the smooth functioning of their political parties over the public interest.

Read the full article at The Intercept.

Zaid Jilani, The Intercept

Zaid Jilani is a journalist for The Intercept. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet.

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