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Denver Post
George Farah
Sunday, August 8, 2004

The presidential debates are the single most important electoral forums in the country - the only time tens of millions of voters watch the leading contenders for the most powerful job in the world on the same stage at the same time.

Voters want these debates to include candidates discussing important issues in an unscripted manner. Unfortunately, that is not what voters get.

Candidates that some voters want to see often have been excluded, such as Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Issues the American people want to hear about - free trade, government waste, corporate crime and child poverty - are often ignored. So, rather than watching actual debates, voters are subjected to a series of glorified news conferences, with the candidates superficially glazing over the issues while reciting memorized sound bites.

Walter Cronkite called the presidential debates an "unconscionable fraud" because the debate format "defies meaningful discourse."

Americans are getting tired of these exclusionary pseudo-debates, and they are turning off their television sets. Twenty-five million fewer people watched the 2000 presidential debates than watched the 1992 presidential debates.

The debates fail to serve the public interest because the Republican and Democratic parties secretly control them. The Commission on Presidential Debates - a private corporation that was created by the Republican and Democratic parties - seized control of the debates from the League of Women Voters in 1988 and has hosted them ever since. The co-chairmen of the commission, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, are the former heads of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, respectively.

Fahrenkopf is also the nation's leading gambling lobbyist, and Kirk has lobbied for pharmaceutical companies. Not surprisingly, the debates are now primarily funded through tax-deductible corporate contributions, and debate sites have become crass corporate carnivals.

Despite its purported commitment to "voter education," the commission does not fight for informative debates, as the League of Women Voters did.

Instead, the commission secretly submits to the demands of the Republican and Democratic candidates. Behind closed doors, negotiators for the Republican and Democratic nominees draft secret debate contracts, called "memoranda of understanding," that dictate precisely how the debates will be run - from decreeing who can participate, to selecting compliant moderators, to requiring the pre-screening of town-hall questions, to even prohibiting the candidates from talking to each other.

Masquerading as a nonpartisan sponsor, the commission obediently implements and conceals the memoranda of understanding.

If the major-party candidates openly hosted their own debates - rather than hid behind a compliant commission - at least they would be held accountable for them. The major-party candidates would be blamed if uninspiring formats were used, or if other candidates were excluded, or if important issues were ignored. The Republican and Democratic nominees would either pay a price on Election Day or host democratic debates to avoid public censure. Under the existing sponsorship regime, however, the commission is conveniently blamed for the debates' flaws. The commission deceptively shields the major-party candidates from public criticism.

This lack of transparency is unacceptable, and that is why 17 national civic leaders from the left, center and right of political spectrum - including Paul Weyrich, Chellie Pingree of Common Cause, Alan Keyes, Tom Gerety of the Brennan Center for Justice, Bay Buchanan, Randall Robinson, former FEC General Counsel Larry Noble, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Jehmu Green of Rock the Vote - created the Citizens' Debate Commission.

Bolstered by an advisory board comprised of 60 diverse civic groups, the Citizens' Debate Commission aims to sponsor presidential debates that serve the American people, not political parties, first. "That's what we need," said Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards when told of the formation of the Citizens' Debate Commission.

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 this fall. 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 Sen. John Kerry must decide whether to courageously participate in truly informative and transparent presidential debates, or to deceptively manipulate these crucial public forums at the expense of voter education.

George Farah is the founder and executive director of Open Debates ( ).