A worker sets up the stage in the Magness Arena at the Daniel L. Ritchie Center for Sports and Wellness, site of Wednesday's presidential debate, on the campus of the University of Denver, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Confirmed as the nominees of their parties at scripted if not always on-message conventions, the Romney/Ryan and Obama/Biden tickets now proceed to what should be the lightning round of American politics: four debates during the month leading up to the November 6 election. Unfortunately, if all goes according to plan, the debates won’t be any more dramatic or instructive than the conventions.
America doesn’t really have presidential debates. Instead, we have joint appearances where candidates recite talking points in settings so carefully controlled by party apparatchiks that the only real wrangling is over the height of the lecterns and the temperature of the drinking water. As with so many other aspects of the political process, debates that should be enlightening, perhaps even transformational, are instead stage-managed to satisfy the demands of power brokers with money and connections rather than the needs of democracy.
For a quarter of a century, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has been run by consummate insiders; the current co-chairs are former Republican National Committee head Frank Fahrenkopf, now president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, and former Bill Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry, in recent years one of DC’s most ardent defenders of the telecommunications industry.
The commission has always relied on corporate funding from the likes of Anheuser-Busch, Philip Morris, Prudential, AT&T and the International Bottled Water Association. Officially, corporate contributions are nonpartisan donations. In reality, as former League of Women Voters president Nancy Neuman has noted, “This is another soft-money deal. It is a way to show your support for the parties.” The league used to organize the debates, but it always had a hard time getting corporate money. Why? “There was nothing in it for corporations when they made a contribution to the league. Not a quid pro quo. That’s not the case with the commission.”
The commission protects the status quo by hosting only a few debates with a narrow range of questions and questioners, and the barriers to entry are so high (a 15 percent polling pattern nationally) that they make it virtually impossible for third-party candidates to get a hearing. It’s a dream arrangement not only for the major parties but for the networks, which prefer neatly packaged political moments.
The stifling predictability of the commission’s approach has for years drawn criticism from activists and organizations on the right and left, including Judicial Watch and Common Cause. Ralph Nader, who fought a pitched battle for a place in the debates during his 2000 Green Party presidential campaign, has never let the issue go.
This year, online petitions by Change.org and UltraViolet.org pressured the commission to select a woman moderator for the first time in twenty years. Commission officials told The Nation that the combine “welcomes” such input, which most observers believe helped force the choice of CNN’s Candy Crowley as one of the presidential debate moderators. But all of the moderators are still white “old media” stalwarts with an average age of 69, and no one expects them to rock the boat. “In order to be considered as a candidate for moderator, you have to be soaked in the sphere of consensus, likely to stay within the predictable inner rings of the sphere of legitimate controversy, and unlikely in the extreme to select any questions from the sphere of deviance,” says Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. The result, notes a conservative critic of the commission, Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton, is that “the questions will be the same ones that have been asked and answered a million times. The candidates will respond with the same focus group–tested talking points.”
This year, the case for reform is being made by a number of credible third-party candidates who have secured ballot status in multiple states, including the Green Party’s Jill Stein, a physician and noted environmental health activist; the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor; the Justice Party’s Rocky Anderson, a former Salt Lake City mayor; and the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode, a former Virginia Congressman. All have claims to debate spots; under more open formats, Stein debated Mitt Romney when they both sought the Massachusetts governorship in 2002, and before he switched parties, Johnson faced Romney in the 2012 GOP presidential debates.
The commission is disinclined to open things up this year, or even to tinker with the format. It’s still vital to keep the pressure on, however. The best way to do that is by backing the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Open Debates, which is calling on the commission to release the details of its negotiations with the Obama and Romney campaigns, as well as its agreement to implement the campaigns’ debate plan. Transparency poses the greatest threat to a commission agenda that Open Debates decries as “more concerned with the partisan interests of the two major-party candidates than the democratic interests of the voting public.”
But citizens should do more than just pressure the commission. After all, its oversight is not required by law. Only back-room deals engineered by the major parties and their candidates give the commission its power. Why not pressure the parties and candidates to open things up? “Debates have the potential to be the most interesting, unscripted and definitional part of the campaign,” Nader says. “So why ration them? Instead of three presidential debates, why not have twenty-one spread across the fall? Why not have debates all over the country? In inner cities and rural areas? Various formats? Debates that focus on specific sets of issues? Why not let activists ask questions based on their knowledge and experience? Why not have moderators who challenge candidates, who ask follow-up questions, who encourage candidates to go at it?”
Unfortunately, those good suggestions face great odds. But this is the time to demand more questioners, more issues and, yes, more candidates. The League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the Brennan Center should amplify the complaints they have made before. Journalists, reformers, union leaders and issue campaigners should recognize that freewheeling debates are all the more necessary now that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has dramatically increased the ability of billionaire donors to dominate our politics.
More—and more open—presidential debates won’t eliminate all of the pathologies that afflict American democracy. But as with campaign finance and media reform, they are essential if we hope to begin addressing the worst of those pathologies. Even if the iron grip of the Commission on Presidential Debates can’t be broken this year, it should be challenged aggressively as part of a multi-year strategy to renew democracy.