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Get Debates Out of Parties' Grasp

Philadelphia Inquirer
By George Farah
Friday, November 14, 2003

On Nov. 6, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced the locations of the so-called presidential debates it expects to sponsor in 2004. Unfortunately, regardless of where they are located, the CPD will not be hosting real presidential debates that truly educate voters.

The CPD represents the interests of the national Republican and Democratic parties, not the American people. Despite its purported commitment to "providing the best possible information to viewers and listeners," the CPD exists to secretly award control of the presidential debates to the Democratic and Republican candidates, at the expense of voter education.

The cochairmen of the CPD, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Paul G. Kirk Jr., are the former heads of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, respectively. Most board members of the CPD ardently believe in a two-party system and are unabashedly contemptuous of third-party candidates.

In fact, the CPD was created by the major parties as an extension of the major parties. The League of Women Voters served as a nonpartisan presidential debate sponsor from 1976 until 1984, ensuring the inclusion of popular independent candidates and prohibiting major party campaigns from manipulating debate formats.

But in 1986, the two parties' national committees ratified an agreement between Fahrenkopf and Kirk "for the parties to take over presidential debates." In 1987, Fahrenkopf and Kirk incorporated the CPD, and for the next 18 months, they served as cochairmen of their parties and the CPD simultaneously.

Although the CPD publishes candidate selection criteria and proposes debate formats, questions concerning third-party participation and debate formats are actually resolved by Republican and Democratic negotiators, who draft secret debate contracts behind closed doors. The CPD executes the directives of the contracts, shielding the major-party candidates from public criticism. Frank Donatelli, debate negotiator for Bob Dole, summarized the process: "The commission throws the party, the commission gets the food, hires the band, but as to who shows up, what the time is and what the dress is, those are the candidates' decisions."

The CPD advertises the inclusion of Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential debates as proof of its neutrality. Perot, however, was included only because President George Bush wanted him. In 1996, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton hatched a deal to keep Perot out of the presidential debates, although Perot had received $30 million in federal funds and some polls showed that up to 76 percent of likely voters wanted him included.

In 2000, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan were excluded from the presidential debates, although 64 percent of registered voters wanted them included.

The CPD allows the two major-party campaigns to exercise even greater control over the selection of format. Candidates handpick compliant panelists and moderators, prohibit candidate-to-candidate questioning, artificially limit response times, require the screening of town-hall questions, and often ban follow-up questions.

The final product really amounts to a series of bipartisan news conferences, in which the major-party candidates merely recite prepackaged sound bites and avoid discussing many important issues. "It's too much show business and too much prompting, too much artificiality, and not really debates," said former President Bush.

To top it off, the CPD's debates are primarily funded through tax-deductible corporate contributions, and debate sites have become corporate carnivals, where sponsoring companies market their products to journalists and politicians. This is not surprising; Fahrenkopf is the nation's leading gambling industry lobbyist, and Kirk has lobbied for pharmaceutical companies.

Presidential debates should consist of popular candidates addressing important issues in an unscripted manner. But the counterfeit debates hosted by the bipartisan CPD fail to address issues the American people want addressed, and fail to include the candidates the American people want included.

Voters deserve a truly nonpartisan debate sponsor - a Citizens' Debate Commission - that will operate with full transparency and resist the antidemocratic demands of participating candidates. Open Debates ( ), a nonprofit organization, is working to form a nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission to host spirited and informative presidential debates in 2004.

George Farah ( ) is the executive director of Open Debates