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St. Paul Pioneer Press

Friday, June 25, 2004

Few folks realize that the U.S. presidential debates have been quietly taken over by the two dominant political parties and retooled in secret to give the major parties advantage, to exclude third-party candidates and to limit actual debate.

Perhaps we've all been put to sleep by the debate snooze-fests orchestrated by the Democratic and Republican national parties the last three presidential election cycles. Time to stop snoring and take the debates back. Give them meaning again. Dare we say make them unpredictable and interesting again?

Open Debates, a nonprofit group of Republicans, Democrats and independents, has a good idea for doing just that. The group has formed the nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission, which issued a challenge to the Bush and Kerry campaigns last month: Participate in six debates across the nation this fall, including one at Carleton College in Northfield on Oct. 11.

We strongly urge the campaigns to do so.

Until 1988, presidential debates were organized by the respected League of Women Voters. But the GOP and Democratic Party seized control after that and have colluded since to limit third-party participation.

The parties control the debates through a shell organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates, chaired by the former heads of the Democratic and Republican national parties. Debate locations, timing, moderators and formats are decided by the commission in collaboration with the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns behind closed doors.

The result is a series of scripted affairs at which the candidates rarely engage in anything close to a debate. They are like competing press conferences on the same stage.

Presidential debates are often the one chance most Americans have to see the candidates in extended action before the election, outside of 15-second sound bites, and can have an effect on the vote. Razor sharp comments can raise a candidate's standing (Ronald Reagan's zinger about Walter Mondale's "youth and inexperience" in 1984). Bone-headed answers (think of Michael Dukakis's fumbling response to the hypothetical murder of his wife) can sound the death knell.

The two parties have succeeded in one thing: They have limited their candidates' exposure. In 1980, six in 10 American households tuned in to the presidential debates. Last election, the audience had been cut in half.

So, let's scrap the pre-selected questions and the rules that limit follow-up questions. Let's allow participation by third-party candidates who meet a minimum standard of public support say the 5 percent required to receive federal matching funds. Let's open the debates to questions from the audience. Let's allow the candidates to question each other and actually debate.

Let's make presidential debates interesting and meaningful again. The way to do that is to wrest control back from the two major parties.