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Real Presidential Debates: public interest groups should replace the two-party stranglehold

The Harvard Crimson
Tuesday , April 20, 2004

Among Richard Nixon's many regrets, surely his anemic 1960 debate performance against John F. Kennedy '40, a Crimson editor, must appear on the list. Jimmy Carter would tell a similar story -- some of the credit for his 1976 victory -- and 1980 defeat -- must go to the debates in those campaigns. Presidents and candidates have good reason to take the debates seriously. They are unique opportunities for a huge number of voters to see the candidates face to face, having a real discussion about the issues at stake.

And yet the spontaneity and dialogue that make debates so important to presidential elections causes enormous anxiety for the candidates themselves.

So much hinges on events they cannot control -- unlike the stump speeches and sound bites that dominate the rest of the campaign. Over the past few election cycles -- in part because of the candidates' discomfort -- the American people have had to sit by as debates get increasingly dumbed-down. Gradually voters have lost the valuable discourse debates once provided, and have gotten in its place rehearsed stump speeches in a slightly different format.

What happened? George Farah, a second-year student at the law school and the founder of Open Debates, a non-profit, non-partisan group, says the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is where the problem starts. After taking over sponsorship of presidential debates from the League of Women Voters beginning in 1988, debates have gradually deteriorated into what we have today.

The CPD has failed as a fair sponsor of presidential forums by handing control of the debates over to the two major parties. Before 1988 the rules of the debates were hashed out by the non-partisan sponsor with only limited input from the major parties. Now the major parties draft what are called the "memoranda of understanding," secret documents that set out the rules and format of the debates. The two major parties create this document in negotiations without the CPD present, meaning that no non-partisan group is able to contribute to the ultimate format and rules of the debate.

The result: debates controlled by the two major parties. They can avoid issues that are considered too dangerous, manipulate the format to protect candidates and exclude viable third-party candidates from participating, all while under the auspices of the CPD.

Luckily, though, a number of groups are working to challenge the CPD and reform presidential debates. Open Debates launched a campaign to attack the CPD's legitimacy in several ways, including by challenging the CPD's non-profit status through the Internal Revenue Service. The organization hopes that these efforts, along with increased media attention after an upcoming press conference, will promote change. The Citizens' Debate Commission was also established as an alternative sponsor to the CPD. The Commission, made up of a wide array of national leaders committed to civic education and real debate, are working to wrest away sponsorship of the debates from the CPD, and we hope they succeed.

Presidential debates are simply too important to be left as they are today. The dumbed-down questions, protective formats and third-party exclusion must be addressed before debates become joint advertisements for the two major parties.