Replace Bi-partisan Shows With Real Debates

By Jeff Milchen
Published by the Pacific News Service, Sept 29, 2004

George W. Bush’s father, a five-time participant in events staged by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), described them this way: “…it’s too much show business and too much prompting, too much artificiality, and not really debates. They’re rehearsed appearances.”

The problems began in 1988, when the League of Women Voters halted its long-time sponsorship of the debates over bi-partisan attempts to turn them into glorified infomercials. The League officially stated, “We have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American people.”

After the League’s withdrawal, the Republican and Democratic parties immediately seized the opportunity to control the debates with their own bi-partisan group, the CPD. Chaired by former heads of the respective parties, the CPD simply executes agreements made by the major party candidates and shields them from accountability for actions such as choosing sound-bite exchanges over real debate and excluding viable candidates from outside the dominant parties. The 32-page Kerry/Bush agreement forbids direct exchanges between candidates, limits follow-up questions and controls details right down to podium and camera angles.

Though few citizens’ know the full story, millions apparently recognize the events have ceased to be genuinely informative. From 1976 to 1984, 60-80 million viewers watched each debate hosted by the non-partisan League. But since then, Americans have tuned out the CPD’s staged events in droves. CPD events have averaged just 40 million viewers in the past two elections. Sixty percent of households tuned in to watch the Carter-Reagan debate in 1980 (in which candidates had a respectable 4 minutes per answer) compared to 30 percent of households dialing into the last Bush-Gore battle of 2 minute (maximum) sound bites in 2000. Though the numbers rebounded in the first 2004 debate, even with 60 million more potential U.S. viewers since 1984, viewership still is down.

What’s made the events so unappealing? The restrictive rules and shorter response times have enabled many scripted and evasive answers. Even the “town hall” debate is largely a facade, with CPD moderators screening questions from the pre-selected audience and forbidding any follow-up. The Kerry and Bush campaigns specified that the microphone must be cut if any participants deviate from the question approved by the moderator.

The lack of direct exchanges and moderators who stick tightly to standard stump speech topics may be the greatest injury to voters. Among key issues that never were mentioned in any 2000 presidential debate were: corporate power or corporate crime, the “drug war,” population growth, immigration and “free trade.” The only mention of labor referred to banning their soft money contributions. Will any moderator challenge the candidates about corporate power over elections or scandals like Halliburton and Enron this year? It will take exceptional courage as long as CPD events are staged for their owners’ benefit, not voters’.

And while more money than ever is being spent on youth voter registration, the CPD events send the message that their concerns don’t matter. While seniors and social security each were referenced more than 60 times during three debates in 2000, neither teenagers nor college students were mentioned at all — and every debate occurred on a college campus!

The narrow range of topics is linked to shutting out viable independent and “third party” candidates (except when both are convinced the outsider will help them, as with Ross Perot in 1992). For 2004, the major parties decreed that 15 percent of the public must indicate plans to vote for a candidate for him to be invited to the debate club. That’s an impossibly high bar, given that most news outlets never have mentioned that three candidates other than Bush, Kerry and Ralph Nader all have earned ballot positions in enough states to win an Electoral College majority (David Cobb, Green Party; Michael Badnarik, Libertarian Party; and Michael Peroutka, Constitution Party). Voters of every ideology lose when our choices are dictated by the two dominant parties.

This year, the organization I direct, Reclaim Democracy!, was proud to help launch a new and truly non-partisan Citizens’ Debate Commission (CDC) to challenge the CPD’s control and provide real debates, rather than sound-bite volleys. These debates would feature direct exchanges between candidates, set fair candidate participation criteria and address a wide range of pressing issues.

The CDC is supported by more than 60 civic groups as diverse as the American electorate, including leaders of the Free Congress Foundation, Judicial Watch, Youth Vote Coalition, Common Cause, the TransAfrica Forum and, tellingly, the former producer of the CPD debates. Yet most major media (with notable exceptions like the L.A. Times) have ignored the challenge entirely, much like the major parties deny voters’ rights to know their full options.

Simply exposing the CPD’s illegitimacy and directly challenging its control has forced it to adopt some of our plan, like varying moderators, lengthening rebuttal time, and allowing some follow-up questions and surrebuttals. It also led to the Memorandum of Understanding between candidates being released for the first time, which in turn produced more critical media coverage than ever before.

But that’s not enough when it comes to the single most influential forum for Americans trying to decide whether to vote and who to vote for. We all deserve debates that serve democracy, not two political parties. The Citizens’ Debate Commission is ready to serve that role and could well succeed by the next presidential election — if, that is, Americans step up and demand the change.

At the time of writing, Jeff Milchen directed Reclaim Democracy!, a non-profit organization working to revitalize American democracy. 

See our overview of the presidential debates and the need for reform.