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Give Us a Real Debate | The Nation

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Give Us a Real Debate

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The pernicious influence on politics of corporate money isn't confined to donations to candidates and parties. Big Business also influences the most important event in a presidential campaign: the debates. The major-party producers of this quadrennial infomercial and their corporate underwriters have cooperated to insure no alternative or dissident voices are heard.

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The most recent challenge to this state of affairs is a lawsuit filed by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in late June charging that the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the private entity that decides who participates in the debates, is illegally supported by millions of dollars in corporate donations. The complaint maintains that the Federal Election Commission exceeded its powers when it ruled that corporations could underwrite the commission, which is run by former chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties. Even though the 1971 Federal Elections Campaign Act prohibits corporations from spending money "in connection with" federal elections, the FEC permitted CPD to fund itself and the debates with corporate money. This year the CPD's national sponsors include AT&T, Sun Microsystems, 3Com and Anheuser-Busch, which will be the sole sponsor of the October 17 debate in St. Louis.

The two major parties created the CPD in 1987 to administer the debates, elbowing out the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. Not surprisingly, the commission has been tough on third-party candidates. This year, it decreed that a candidate must be at 15 percent in the polls to be invited--which will likely prevent third-party contenders like Nader and Pat Buchanan from sharing the debate platform. (Ross Perot was included in 1992 because the Bush campaign, believing Perot would take votes from the Democrats, insisted on it, and Bill Clinton agreed.)

Nader's suit is not specifically designed to gain him a spot in the debates. Its goal is to pull the rug out from under the CPD. "If that succeeds," says Jamin Raskin, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law and one of Nader's attorneys, "in the ensuing commotion, there might be a more inclusive option, which would include Nader and others."

This suit is not the first legal assault on the CPD. In 1988 and 1992 Lenora Fulani unsuccessfully sued to get into the debates. In 1996 Perot and Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin complained to the FEC that the CPD's selection criteria violated campaign law. Two years later, Lawrence Noble, the FEC's general counsel, issued a report agreeing with Perot and Hagelin. He also found that the Clinton and Dole campaigns had illegally conspired with the CPD to exclude Perot. But the FEC ignored Noble's report and unanimously ruled that the CPD and the Clinton and Dole campaigns had done nothing wrong. Hagelin then sued the FEC; a decision is expected soon.

Earlier this year, Buchanan filed a complaint with the FEC, claiming that the CPD acts on behalf of the major parties and that its 15 percent standard is self-serving. He has a point. Why not base the decision on whether polls show people want a candidate in a debate? Or on whether a candidate has qualified for federal funds?

The chances of Nader or Buchanan debating Gore and Bush appear slim. A compromise might be to hold one set of debates between the front-runners and another set featuring major- and minor-party candidates--but the CPD shows no interest. The Alliance for Democracy is planning to protest the debates' exclusivity, and Raskin is encouraging a "Boston TV Party," in which people dump their TVs into Boston Harbor during the first debate. Lawsuits, protests--it's hard to tell if anything will break the iron grip of the Republicrat duopoly, abetted by its corporate pals, on the presidential debates.

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