To Debate or Not…
How Political Elites Have Corrupted the Debate Process
and Are Cheating Voters
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful…
to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
(George Orwell “Politics and the English Language, 1946)
Ever wonder why recent presidential debates fail to live up to their pre-broadcast hype (most of the hype coming from the mainstream media who profit big-time off them)? For voters who want to see the candidates outside their carefully scripted habitats, discussing and debating the most critical issues facing the US —perpetual war, income inequality of mind-boggling proportions, corporate capture at every level of government, a health care system that only works if you’re not sick, a finance sector that’s too big to fail and jail, a generation of the young in debt-peonage, incarceration rates unequalled anywhere in the world, including China, a people who are the most surveilled in the history of the republic and possibly the world — the let-down after one of these gab fests masquerading as debates is intense. Just another campaign event for the two people representing the democrat/republican duopoly to try and gain the upper hand over their opponent in any of several time-tested ways — slinging mud, impugning character, referencing past behavior —a beauty contest rather than a forum to debate the issues that affect our lives.
Is this what debating in the US has come down to? Candidates talking at us not to us, a debate commission that makes the rules, chooses the participants, the moderators, the number of debates, format, subjects covered and everything in between and does it behind closed doors.
How did we get into this mess?
It wasn’t always like that. Debates go back a long way in the American political process. More than a century and a half ago, in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas running for a vacant senate seat, held 7 face-to-face debates with no moderator. The rules were straightforward: one candidate opened with a one-hour speech, the other had one hour and a half for rebuttal. Each candidate was allotted 30 minutes to present his strongest arguments in the concluding portion of the debate. Douglas won the senate seat but the real winners were the voters who could make their choice based on real evidence.
Fast forward to 1940, the next time the debates issue was raised in a presidential race. Wendell Wilkie, Republican nominee, tried to interest FDR in a debate. Ever the master politician with all the self-interest that implies, FDR was not going to risk his political future by a poor debate performance.
Four years later in 1948, four days before the Oregon Republican presidential primary, two candidates, Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen, held a nationally broadcast radio debate on ABC (CBS refused to broadcast it). 66 million people tuned in. Dewey picked the topic, “Shall the Communist party be outlawed?” (It was the beginning of the cold war; Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech occurred in 1946). Setting the standard for all future debates, Dewey’s strong showing in the debate catapulted him into the presidential race against Truman.
The first televised debate occurred in 1956 although it was not a presidential debate. Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver embroiled in a close primary contending for the democratic presidential nomination went toe to toe in this one.
The first televised presidential debate was not in 1960 as is commonly thought but 1956 and it was not between the actual candidates, Eisenhower and Stevenson but between their surrogates. You’ll never guess who the surrogates were. Two women —Eleanor Roosevelt for Stevenson and Margaret Chase Smith for Eisenhower. Roosevelt appeared to be winning throughout until Smith gave her concluding remarks, a brilliant summation of her candidate’s positions. Roosevelt was so taken back and angry that she refused to shake hands with Smith at the end of the debate.
In 1960, JFK and Richard Nixon sparred on national TV in the first televised debate with the candidates present. Setting the tone for all future debates, JFK won for his telegenic charm and youthful charisma, although Nixon was the better debater with a much better command of the issues.
Debates came to a crashing halt in 1960 — for 16 years. The FCC equal time rule mandating inclusion of all candidates in the debates was cited by both parties as the reason. Both Republican and Democratic leaders were united in their opposition to opening up the debates to third party candidates. A position that has remained remarkably consistent for 52 years (the equal time rule had been suspended in 1960 and could have been in subsequent years if the parties had been willing —they weren’t). The equal time rule was more a stalking horse for the real reasons no debates were held for so many years. Once again self-serving reasons take center stage. Listen and weep for lost opportunities. In 1964 LBJ was comfortably ahead in the polls and didn’t think he needed the publicity a debate would afford him. In 1968, democratic contender, Hubert Humphrey wanted to debate Nixon, but Nixon who still had nightmares about his abysmal performance in 1960 wasn’t about to make the same mistake. Again in 1972, Nixon maintained a comfortable lead over democratic candidate George McGovern and told aides he would “not stoop” to debate McGovern.
In 1976, sixteen years after the last debate, both parties came up with a way around the FCC ruling (a work-around that could just as easily been done in 1964, ’68 or ’72 if the candidates had wanted to debate —which, as we have seen, they didn’t). To avoid triggering the equal time rule, the debates would be sponsored by an outside party. Debates would be considered news events and the hosting organization could include or exclude anyone it wanted to.
From 1976-1984, the League of Women Voters hosted the debates. Founded in 1920, six weeks before the 19th Amendment giving women the vote passed, the LWV initially helped women exercise their voting rights. It expanded to champion a variety of human rights causes including universal healthcare, gun control, abortion rights, action on climate change and environmental laws e.g. Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The LWV’s “MO” was to aggressively negotiate with both parties to insure that the debates served the interest of the voters, not pandered to the desire of the candidates to win at any cost. 1976 was also the year President Ford made his famous gaffe (probably costing him the election) by announcing “there is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.”
1980 came along and with it new challenges and new headaches for the LWV. John B. Anderson, Illinois congressman, was running for president as an independent and wanted in on the first debate. Reagan, the republican challenger, did not object but President Carter refused. The LWV, which didn’t suffer fools gladly, held the debate despite Carter’s refusal to participate. 55 million Americans watched the Reagan-Anderson debate. Carter’s churlishness may have been a factor in his defeat.
The last debate the League sponsored was in 1984 between Reagan and Mondale. Wanting to distract viewers from questions of his age (he was 73 years old in 1984), Reagan came up with what has become one of the most famous quotes in American politics: I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s age and inexperience.”
“It’s my Party…”
By 1987, the two-party duopoly was determined to wrest control of the debates away from the LWV and into their own hands and coffers. Accordingly in 1988 two weeks before the election, the two parties presented the LWV with a 16 page non-negotiable contract. In a press release shortly after receipt of the memo the LWV announced they would no longer sponsor the debates “because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American electorate.” Further, they charged, “It has been clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
Sound familiar? It should. The September 26th Trump-Clinton debate had all the hallmarks of a “fraud on the American electorate.” The attempt now as it was then, 18 years ago, was “the hoodwinking of the American public.
The two parties formed the Commission on Presidential Debates, a name which suggests a government agency but is in reality a private, non-profit corporation funded by —you guessed it — the same corporate interests spending millions of dollars in congress lobbying for goodies ranging from subsidies to tax deductions to big contracts awarded by government agencies. Run by lobbyists from both parties, the CPD is determined to keep third parties from horning in on the spoils. To that end they have established the “15% rule,” excluding from televised debates candidates who do not receive at least 15% of the votes in national polls —themselves run by commercial companies affiliated with major media empires e.g. Washington Post, New York Times, CBS, NBC. This despite the fact that campaign finance law allows candidates polling 5% to get millions of federal dollars to run their campaigns.
The CPD’s MO doesn’t leave anything to chance. Representatives of both candidates get together and negotiate a secret contract [MOU-memorandum of understanding] dictating the terms of the debate from the nonsensical —the height of the podiums, temperature of the room, to red-meat issues —number of debates, participants, moderator (in 1980 the Republican and Democratic parties vetoed 68 moderators the LWV selected to host the debate), length of debate, and subjects to be debated.
Only once did candidates’ representatives force the CPD to accept a third party candidate at one of their debates. Not in the peoples’ interest, but in the interest of each candidate’s desire to put roadblocks in the way of their opponent’s march to the nomination. That year, 1992, President George H.W. Bush running behind Bill Clinton in the polls wanted to include third party candidate Ross Perot in the three 1992 debates. In the judgment of his handlers, Perot’s effect would be to siphon votes away from Clinton. Likewise, Clinton’s people thought Perot would draw support from Bush. The CPD initially held out for Perot to appear in only one debate. In the face of unyielding opposition from both sides, Perot eventually appeared in all three debates.
Perot’s debate performances (contemporary opinion considered him the winner in two of the three debates) helped make him the most successful third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Polling 7% before the debates, he captured 19% of the popular vote on election day. Performance metrics aside, exposure was a huge factor. From a little known candidate with no name recognition, his appearance before millions of viewers (67 million for one debate) made him an overnight sensation.
In 1996, Perot was again on the ballot and wanted to be in the debates. 75% of the American people agreed with him. This time the worm turned and it was not perceived to be in either candidate’s interest to include him. The Bush people felt so strongly that Perot was a major liability they offered the Clinton campaign major inducements to keep Perot out: drop one debate (2 instead of 3), eliminate follow-up questions and to satisfy Clinton’s desire to decrease viewership hold one of the debates opposite a world series game. Not surprisingly, Perot did not participate — the self-interest of the candidates once again outstripping the public interest.
And so it goes. In election after election — 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 — “The CPD has turned the presidential debates into yet another opportunity for special interests to influence the political process via financial contributions.” (A statement by Open Debates, a non-profit, non-partisan organization advocating presidential debate reform).
Why are third parties so anathema to the CPD? Allan Simpson, ex republican congressman, and Obama fav whom he picked to co-head his Presidential Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (translation: gut social programs, privatize social security, increase the military budget) and a CPD board member summed up the Commission’s negative view on including third party candidates in presidential debates: [There is] “no reason to include independent candidates. They just mess things up.” (translation: It’s our party, no party crashers allowed.)
Let’s look at the first 2016 debate. Noticeably scripted, light on substance, rife with insults on both sides, a beauty contest to decide the greatest question facing the US — who will occupy the Oval Office and make the critical decisions on climate and environment, US global military footprint, perpetual war, and the growing nuclear threat.
We deserve better than we got on September 26. Maybe it’s time to get out the pitchforks. Before it’s too late. If it isn’t already.
“Americans deserve to see and hear the men [and women] who would be president face each other in a debate on the hard and complex issues critical to our progress into the next century.” (Nancy M Neuman, President, League of Women Voters, 1988)
Update: 9/26/2016 –The bold, uncompromising stand of the LWV in 1988 has done a 180 and succumbed to powerful corporate interests AKA the Commission on Public Debates (CPD). The Maryland senatorial Green Party candidate, Dr. Margaret Flowers, has been excluded from a televised senatorial debate. Although her poll numbers, consistent with her lack of exposure, are not impressive (at 2%), 18% of voters are still undecided, she has satisfied the two other state requirements for inclusion on the November ballot — evidence of an office and staff, and of a statewide campaign run by staff and volunteers. What happened to the League of Women Voters of 1988 who valiantly spoke truth to power, whose principles would not countenance the naked power grab of both Republicans and Democrats, who took their civic responsibility seriously and refused to honor a contract negotiated behind closed doors in the interest of perpetuating a two party duopoly. Is this what progress means?
Asked and answered by the LWV in 1988. In 2016, the world has turned upside down and what was black and white is now gray. Why is it important for the Greens to participate in the debate? As a third party candidate not accepting corporate campaign contributions and not having the media “megaphone” Republicans and Democrats have by means of their heavyweight corporate sponsors, Dr. Flowers and the Greens need the public exposure of televised debates. Twenty-eight years ago, the LWV would have fought for the right of a third party candidate to participate in the debate. In 2016, the LWV is sanctioning debates excluding third party candidate. Their excuse sounds like it came from an episode of SNL — the “time constraints” of a televised debate make more than two candidates impractical. In rebuttal, let’s remember back to the first Republican presidential debate on August 6. Ten candidates were onstage and participating in the debate.
Maybe the LWV had gone fishing when that debate took place.
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