(MintPress) — Later this year, President Barack Obama will join the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in a series of presidential debates leading up to November’s election. The two will likely spar on healthcare, the economy and foreign policy as it relates to Iran and Israel. But that’s only if they agree to do […]
(MintPress) — Later this year, President Barack Obama will join the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in a series of presidential debates leading up to November’s election. The two will likely spar on healthcare, the economy and foreign policy as it relates to Iran and Israel. But that’s only if they agree to do so.
A long way from the stage’s bright lights, applauding crowds and inquisitive moderators, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has scripted the debate in favor of the candidates in a way that pro wrestling scripts its shows for the performers. Private contracts dictate who participates in the events and which topics are covered, while the public has no access to the contract information.
Political activist Connie Rice said in 2004 that voters are cheated by the debates because topics that pertain to voter interest are often ignored to allow candidates to rally their party with predetermined soundbites.
“Really important but sticky or tough issues get axed, because the parties control the questions and topics,” Rice said. “For example, in 2000, Gore and Bush mentioned the following issues zero times: Child poverty, the drug war, homelessness, working-class families, NAFTA, prisons, corporate crime and corporate welfare.”
The CPD is a private corporation created jointly by the Democratic and Republican parties that took control of the debates in the 1980s from the League of Women Voters (LWV). Since its inception, it has created rules that require third-party candidates to poll at a 15 percent rate in order for them to earn a spot on the debate stage. It also privatized the debate system, allowing for the party-created organization to determine where debates will be conducted while requiring a bipartisan agreement of how the debate will be structured. A “Memorandum of Understanding” is drawn up and requires the signatures of the parties involved.
Political parties take control
That practice started in 1988, when the LWV withdrew its sponsorship of presidential debates after it discovered the campaigns of George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis drew up a 16-page contract that gave the campaigns control of the debate proceedings. Then-LWV President Nancy Neuman said the organization was not going to “help perpetuate a fraud.”
“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions,” Neuman said in 1988. “… Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates’ organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands.”
Open Debates, a nonprofit group dedicated to created a public platform for debates, obtained the 2004 memorandum signed by the campaign managers for George W. Bush and John Kerry. The contract limits audience involvement, requires the audience members to be either “soft” Bush supporters or Kerry supporters and assigns topics to the debates while requiring the candidates not to challenge one another on issues outside of the predetermined debate format.
Two excerpts from the contract include:
– The parties agree that they will not (1) issue any challenges for additional debates, (2) appear at any other debate or adversarial forum with any other presidential or vice presidential candidate, or (3) accept any television or radio air time offers that involve a debate format or otherwise involve the simultaneous appearance of more than one candidate.
– The topic of the September 30 debate shall be foreign policy and homeland security. The topic of the October 13 debate shall be economic and domestic policy. The October 5 vice presidential debate and the October 8 presidential debate shall not be limited by topic and shall include an equal number of questions related to foreign policy and homeland security on the one hand and economic and domestic policy on the other.
The call for transparency
Activists and organizations alike have called for a change to the system and for the true spirit of debate to be implemented. In 2000, activist Christopher Hitchens protested for transparency in the debate system and for third-party candidate Ralph Nader to be included. Journalist Walter Cronkite called the debate system an “unconscionable fraud.”
Cronkite was referencing the system of finances for the private CPD. The commission accepts private sponsorships for the debates, oftentimes the same companies that spend the most on lobbying, which has critics arguing that the sponsors control the topics and rhetoric used in the debates. In 2008, the Obama and John McCain debates were sponsored by companies such as Anheuser-Busch, the International Bottled Water Association and BBH New York, a private investment bank and securities firm.
“The CPD has turned the presidential debates into yet another opportunity for special interests to influence the political process via financial contributions,” Open Debates wrote. “By donating to the CPD, corporations are able to make tax-deductible contributions that simultaneously benefit both major parties. As a result, corporations perceive donations to the bipartisan CPD to be bipartisan political contributions.”
George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, told DemocracyNow! that the secret contracts also allow for parties to work a sense of damage control, which was seen in the 2008 vice presidential debates between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Farah said the campaigns for Biden and Palin drastically limited their response time to questions to 90 seconds, significantly less time than Obama and McCain were given, because the campaigns wanted to reduce the number of gaffes from each participant.
Rice said that type of candidate protection is something more closely related to a press conference rather than a debate.
“A debate is a head-to-head, spontaneous, structured argument over the merits of an issue,” Rice said. “Under the ridiculous 32-page contract that reads like the rules for the Miss America Pageant, there will be no candidate-to-candidate questions, no rebuttal to your opponent’s points, no cross questions or cross answers, no rebuttals, no follow-up questions — that’s not a debate, that’s a news conference.”