CDC Logo

Rural America Deserves Real Presidential Debate

Grand Forks Herald
By Niel Ritchie and Chris Shaw
Sunday, February 8, 2004

For rural America, this is a very important election.

Rural poverty is rising, access to decent, affordable health care has diminished, and economic opportunities have vanished. Manufacturing jobs are moving overseas while independent farmers and small-business owners struggle to compete with large corporations. Rural people in every state could tell this same story.

While candidates evoke romantic images of family farms and small-town America, even stressing the need to help, we hear few specifics about the nature of our economic challenges and even less about potential solutions.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, the major party nominees for president and vice president debated for a total of six hours - a paltry amount of time, considering the massive job these folks were interviewing for. Now, consider that only five minutes of those six hours were devoted to rural issues, including agriculture.

During their very brief exchange about rural issues in the 2000 debates, candidate George W. Bush stated that trade helps farmers and ranchers, that he was against the estate tax and that he was "for research and development." Candidate Al Gore said that he was against the Freedom to Farm Act, favored restoring the safety net and supported extending the Internet into rural areas. Both stated they were for conservation.

But neither candidate offered details about their positions, and neither explained the issues in a way that someone living in, say, a city in New Jersey ever would know what they were talking about. And urban America deserves to know. With 55 million people living and working in the 80 percent of America that is considered rural, producing food, fiber and fuel for domestic consumption, it is time for a real national economic policy debate that includes rural America.

So why aren't rural issues more prominent in the debates? A look at the sponsoring organization, the Commission on Presidential Debates, offers some clues.

The commission was founded in 1988 by the national Republican and Democratic parties and lets party negotiators draft secret debate contracts behind closed doors, deciding the format, the questions and whether third-party candidates can participate. Under this arrangement, issues that don't fit into the candidates' campaign plans are not included in the debate. This is a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop.

There is an alternative - one that could help return the presidential debates to the American people and raise the level of debate on many issues, including rural concerns. National civic leaders from the left, right and center of the political spectrum have come together to form the Citizens' Debate Commission (

Operating with full transparency, the Citizens' Debate Commission will sponsor debates that address the issues by including popular third-party candidates and allowing candidate-to-candidate questioning, sufficient response times, rebuttals and assertive moderators.

Rural America deserves a more prominent place in the national debates. The Citizen's Debate Commission offers that hope.

Ritchie is executive director of the League of Rural Voters, an organization that seeks to increase the representation of rural people and issues in the political process. Shaw is organizing director of Open Debates, a group that works to reform the presidential debates.