Debates a sham, no argument

Nixon and Kennedy, televised debateMore than 50 million Americans watched the first debates between John McCain and Barack Obama. This was more than the number of Americans who watched the opening night of the Beijing Olympics and speaks to the intense interest Americans have in the upcoming election.

However, the debates are a political sham. The presidential debates not only exclude legitimate third-party candidates, but are structured in a way to inhibit meaningful engagement between the candidates over the major issues of the presidential race.

Public debates among presidential contenders are a revered American institution. The great 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, which went on for hours, focused the nation's attention on the issue of slavery and the future of the union. Similarly, the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 initiated the era of TV presidential debates and focused on the future of Cold War America.

The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan civic group, served as the sponsor of the debates between 1976 and 1987. It employed a five per cent rule of electoral support for a candidate to participate in the TV debate. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter faced John Anderson as a legitimate third-party candidate, and he refused to participate in the debates, contributing to Ronald Reagan's victory.

However, in 1987, the Democratic and Republican parties decided to seize control over the presidential debates. In the midst of the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns, the leaders of America's two major political parties agreed on a new approach. They established the Commission of Presidential Debates (CPD), a private corporation, to organise and run the debates.

During the wake of the 1992 election, third-party candidate Ross Perot was polling 10 per cent popularity and forced his way into the debates, which led to Bill Clinton's victory over incumbent president Bush.

The two executives who currently run the CPD are both established Washington insiders and former chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties. Frank Fahrenkopf is the nation's leading gambling-industry lobbyist and Paul Kirk is a major pharmaceutical-industry lobbyist.

Surprising to many, the debates are not publicly-funded events. Like the Olympics, they are sponsored by major corporations, many with legislation pending before the US Congress.

According to the conservative Washington Times, 'the sponsors have already spent $3.6 million on federal lobbying over the first six months of the year'. Among the leading sponsors this year are Anheuser-Busch Cos. (Budweiser beer), the International Bottled Water Association and Hewlett-Packard's Electronic Data Systems.

Since the '92 debate, the CPD has worked to limit both the third party option and the element of surprise from the debate format. They have operated through a series of secret agreements between the two parties which set the rules of debate. Continuing pressure by good-government groups and leading newspapers over the last 20 years, including this year, have not been successful in forcing the CPD to publicly disclose the rules.

The CPD determines who can participate and who will moderate the debate. It established a 15 percent third-party threshold for participation to avoid a situation like that in 1980 and 1992. Ralph Nader, a perennial third-party candidate, calls this 'a Catch-22 level of support that is almost impossible for any third-party candidate to reach without first getting in the debates'.

This year, questions are being raised about the different formats used in the presidential and the vice-presidential debates, with the VP debate structured with shorter exchanges to benefit the apparently inarticulate Republican candidate, Sarah Palin, and the shoot-from-the-hip loose-lipped Democrat, Joe Biden.

A growing number of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the current debates are run. Public opinion polls reveal that, for example, 55 per cent want Bob Barr, the libertarian candidate, and 45 per cent want Nader on the debate. Independent voters in particular want the third and fourth candidates to participate.

Equally important, a host of civic groups have come out against the secret agreements that structure the debates, including Open Debates, Common Cause, Judicial Watch, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting and Rock the Debates.

One of the major proponents for change in the debate structure, George Farah, of Open Debates, argues that by 'denying voters access to critical information about our most important political forums, the Commission on Presidential Debates is more concerned with the partisan interests of the two major party candidates than the democratic interests of the voting public'.

While the '08 debates roll on as stylised television entertainments that drain the heat out of political conflict, Americans can only hope that in 2012 the presidential debates will be revived as truly spirited and democratic as they were with Lincoln and Douglas.

Commission on Presidential Debates

David RosenDavid Rosen is a media and social critic living in New York.

Topic tags: presidential debates, Barrack Obama, John McCain, third-party candidates, sarah palin, joe biden



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Existing comments

We all agree today's presidential debates are a sham. Just as we all agree today's presidential campaigns are a sham. But why? Well Lincoln and Douglas weren't pitted against a disingenuous media corps chomping at the bit to manipulate, misquote and debase everything they say in the name of ratings and sensationalism were they? I love the way the media gets 'holier than thou' with these accusations against politicians as if they had no part in the shameful smears we see in national politics.....we really do put up with a lot in the name of free speech - Hannity and O'Reilly alone test the limits of my patience with democracy...
Anne | 08 October 2008

John McCain is used to force the election of Barack Obama. Barack Obama forced you to pay for Wall Street's bailout.

Stop the extortion, blackmail, bribery, and division; Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, and Cynthia McKinney.

"The two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can 'throw the rascals out' at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy." - Carol Quigley
sham debate | 08 October 2008


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