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Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
Tom Gerety and George Farah

Monday, August 30, 2004

In the long process of selecting a president, nothing matters more than the presidential debates. But the Republican and Democratic nominees often do all they can to control the debates and tame them. They want to avoid tough questions, free exchanges -- and, of course, third party challengers.

This can't be good for America. We need an organization in charge of the debates that will resist the major party candidates' stultifying demands and look first to the good of the voters who want to hear a real exchange of ideas about the country's future.

For three election cycles, the League of Women Voters selflessly served as such a debate sponsor. In 1980, the League invited independent candidate John B. Anderson to participate in a presidential debate, even though President Jimmy Carter adamantly refused to debate him.

Four years later, when the Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale campaigns vetoed 68 proposed panelists in order to eliminate difficult questions, the League held a press conference and lambasted the candidates for "abusing the process." The ensuing public outcry persuaded the candidates to accept the League's panelists.

And in 1988, when the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns drafted the first secret debate contract -- a "Memorandum of Understanding" that dictated who got to participate, who would ask the questions, even the heights of the podiums -- the League declined to implement it. Instead, the League withdrew its sponsorship and issued a blistering press release, claiming that "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."

Only a genuinely nonpartisan sponsor as willing to publicly criticize the candidates can ensure that contemporary presidential debates truly serve the voters' interests.

A genuinely nonpartisan sponsor, however, no longer runs the presidential debates.

In 1986, the Republican and Democratic National Committees ratified an agreement for the "parties to take over the presidential debates" and 15 months later, the parties created the private Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored general election presidential debates since 1988. Every four years, negotiators for the major party nominees draft secret Memoranda of Understanding that dictate precisely how the debates will be structured, and the CPD obediently implements the contracts, shielding the nominees from public criticism.

The results are predictable. Candidates that voters want to see are often excluded, such as Ross Perot; issues the American people want to hear about are often ignored, such as free trade and declining wages; and the debates have been reduced to glorified bipartisan news conferences, in which the Republican and Democratic candidates merely recite prepackaged soundbites. As a result, debate viewership has plummeted, with 25 million fewer people watching the 2000 presidential debates than watching the 1992 presidential debates. Walter Cronkite called the presidential debates an "unconscionable fraud" and accused the major party candidates of "sabotaging the electoral process."

Faced with mounting criticism, the CPD recently adopted improved format proposals for the 2004 presidential debates. However, these fig-leaf format proposals are unlikely to be implemented because the structurally-biased CPD will never publicly challenge the major party candidates. If past election cycles are any guide, and the CPD sponsors the 2004 debates, this fall President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry will draft a Memorandum of Understanding that prescribes the debate format, and the CPD will implement and conceal it. (Kerry's selection of Vernon Jordan a former director of the CPD to serve as lead debate negotiator will facilitate CPD compliance.)

This lack of transparency is unacceptable for the world's first modern democracy, and that is why 17 national civic leaders from the left, center and right of political spectrum formed the Citizens' Debate Commission. The Citizens' Debate Commission will not hesitate to criticize the candidates.

The Citizens' Debate Commission has announced sites and dates for five presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, to be held in colleges and universities around the country. (Nova Southeastern University is on the schedule for Oct. 15.) Those debates would feature engaging formats, include the candidates the American people want to see and address a variety of pressing national issues.

Now, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry must decide whether to courageously participate in real presidential debates that maximize voter education, or to manipulate the debates and hide behind a compliant commission.

Tom Gerety, former president of Amherst College and Trinity College, is the director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. George Farah is the founder and executive director of the civic group Open Debates. Both are members of the Citizens Debate Commission.