CDC Logo

End the Debates Before They Start

New York Times
By Paul Weyrich and Randall Robinson
Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Last week the Commission on Presidential Debates announced its schedule for next year. Debates among the presidential candidates are the most important events of the campaign, and they should be the most effective forum possible for the education of American voters. But they won't be, as long as the commission continues to organize them.

The commission -- which is a private, nonprofit corporation --represents the interests of the Republican and Democratic parties. Despite its stated commitment to "provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners" about the election, the commission consistently abdicates its responsibility by allowing the major-party candidates to control the debates. The debates -- and democracy -- would be better served by a less partisan, more responsive organization.

From 1976 to 1984, the presidential debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. In 1986, however, the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee ratified their agreement to take over the presidential debates. The commission was established in 1987.

The commission describes itself as nonpartisan, but it is actually bipartisan: its co-chairmen are Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. For several months after the commission was formed, each man served as the chairman of a major political party and as co-chairman of the commission itself.

The commission's bias toward the two major parties is most evident during the debate negotiation process. Every four years, the commission publicly proposes a debate schedule and publishes candidate selection criteria. Questions concerning third-party participation and debate formats, however, are ultimately resolved behind closed doors among Republican and Democratic negotiators. The commission, posing as an independent sponsor, then enforces these rules, shielding the major-party candidates from public criticism.

In 1996, for example, Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton maneuvered to keep Ross Perot from the presidential debates, even though Mr. Perot had received almost $30 million in federal matching funds and a substantial majority of likely voters wanted him included.

The commission allows the two major parties even greater control over the selection of format. Candidates must agree on panelists and moderators. They can also prohibit candidate-to-candidate questioning, require the screening of town-hall questions, artificially limit response times and ban follow-up questions. The result is a series of glorified bipartisan news conferences, where the major-party candidates merely recite prepackaged sound bites and avoid discussing many important issues.

Imagine a new, genuinely nonpartisan debate sponsor -- a Citizens Debate Commission -- operating with full transparency and resisting the antidemocratic demands of participating candidates. Popular third-party candidates that the American people want to see participate in the debates would be included. Exchanges among the candidates and follow-up questions would be allowed. Our organization, Open Debates, is working to make this dream a reality.

Real presidential debates would energize voters, broaden the presentation of issues and give a more accurate portrayal of the candidates for the most important job in the world.

Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Heritage Foundation, and Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, are directors of Open Debates, which works to change the presidential debate process.