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George Farah

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Every time a Republican or Democratic candidate makes a mistake in a presidential debate, their successors try to prevent it from happening again, often by manipulating the debate rules.

In 1960, Richard Nixon lost his lead and the election by debating John F. Kennedy in front of a record-breaking television audience, so in 1996, comfortably ahead in the polls, President Bill Clinton deliberately scheduled the debates opposite the World Series to depress viewership. In 1988, panelist Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis what he would do to a killer who raped and murdered his wife, so the candidates now vet all the moderators to avoid unpredictable questions. In 1992, President George Bush was caught looking at his watch during a debate, so this year, the Kerry and Bush campaigns agreed to prohibit camera shots of the candidate who is not speaking (though the networks refused to comply). In 1992, Ross Perot participated in the debates and partly cost Bush the election, so four years later, Bob Dole insisted that Perot be excluded, even though Perot had $29 million in public financing and three-quarters of eligible voters wanted him included. In 1992, President Bush stumbled over a creative town-hall question, so this year, his son required that all town-hall questions be pre-screened and selected by the moderator.

Time and again, the major party candidates have sanitized the nation's most important public forums at the expense of voter education, without facing a shred of organized opposition. The candidates can get away with ruining the presidential debates because the Republicans and Democratic parties created a bipartisan, corporate-funded, candidate-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates.

The commission, which claims to "have no relationship with any political party or candidate," was created by and for the Republican and Democratic parties. In 1986, the Republican and Democratic National Committees ratified an agreement "to take over the presidential debates" from the League of Women Voters, and fifteen months later, then-Republican Party chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then-Democratic Party chair Paul Kirk incorporated the debate commission.

Seventeen years later, Fahrenkopf and Kirk still co-chair the commission. Fahrenkopf is also the nation's leading gambling lobbyist, and Kirk has lobbied on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry. Not surprisingly, the commission is primarily financed by corporate contributions, and debate sites have turned into crass corporate carnivals, with Anheuser-Busch girls passing out free beer and pamphlets denouncing beer taxes.

Every four years, the commission submits to the shared demands of the Democratic and Republican candidates. Behind closed-doors, negotiators for the major party nominees jointly draft debate contracts called Memoranda of Understanding that dictate precisely how the debates will be structured - from who gets to participate to who will ask the questions to the temperature in the auditoriums. The commission merely implements the contracts, shielding the major party candidates from public criticism.

For this election, Bush and Kerry's ten high profile debate negotiators - led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Clinton advisor and super-lawyer Vernon Jordan - crafted a series of presidential debates that excluded all third-party challengers and allowed the candidates to often recite a series of memorized soundbites. The remarkably comprehensive 32-page 2004 Memorandum of Understanding prohibited the candidates from questioning each other, limited rebuttals to a mere 30 seconds, barred direct follow-up questions and entirely prohibited surrebuttals. Walter Cronkite called such presidential debates an "unconscionable fraud" because the candidates "participate only with the guarantee of a format that defies meaningful discourse."

The American people deserve a sponsor that will fight for engaging and robust debates, rather than capitulate to the candidates' antidemocratic demands. When the League of Women Voters hosted the presidential debates, it refused to implement an 11-page agreement drafted by the Bush and Dukakis campaigns in 1988. Instead, the League issued a blistering press release, claiming that the candidates' demands "would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."

A coalition of 60 civic groups formed the genuinely nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission to host real and informative presidential debates in future elections. The nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission must break the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates' monopoly over the debates. Otherwise, as a result of the 2012 Memorandum of Understanding, the two major party candidates may require themselves to answer questions posed by Oprah Winfrey with silent interpretive dance.