Often when people talk about the lack of transparency in modern presidential campaigns, they focus on Citizens United, candidates’ unspecific answers, or biased media coverage. However, with barely a month until the election, the results of some of the most egregious backroom deal-making, political theater, and corporate sponsorship will soon be visible to a largely unknowing public. And just what is this terrible miscarriage of democracy that is astoundingly hidden in plain sight? Surprisingly, it’s the upcoming presidential debates.
Televised presidential debates are a relatively new phenomenon. The first, the famous 1960 meeting between Kennedy and Nixon, was network sponsored and received strong ratings. However, the next televised general-election debate wasn’t held until 1976, when the League of Women Voters (LWV) took over organizing the events. The group was adamant in its commitment to remain nonpartisan and pushed presidential hopefuls on issues with tough follow-up questions and candidate-to-candidate discussion. But both parties wanted more power in shaping the debates, and so in 1987 the heads of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee came together and formed the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to pursue that goal.
The CPD planned to work with the LWV to sponsor the 1988 debates between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, but that plan fell apart after the Bush and Dukakis campaigns agreed to a memorandum of understanding — a secret contract thoroughly outlining the details of the debates — without any input from the LWV. The campaigns presented the agreement to the LWV two weeks before the first debate as a deal whose conditions were “not subject to negotiation.“ The LWV pulled support shortly thereafter. Then-President Nancy Neuman explained:
The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become 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.
Most people are unaware of just how carefully orchestrated, how painfully sanitized, and how utterly devoid of substance these debates are. Indeed, beginning in 1988, the entire modern debate process has been carefully constructed to benefit the two principal parties and serve as another platform for them to repeat their well-prepared talking points.
To begin with, even the most insignificant minutiae of the debates are planned and agreed upon by the two campaigns. Other than growing in length and specificity, today’s memorandum of understanding signed by both campaigns has changed little from its Bush-Dukakis progenitor. While there has been a growing push for the CPD to release these contracts, there is little chance that it will do so.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what the parties have agreed to this year, 2004′s contract (the most recent available) offers a glimpse at some of the most likely rules. How specific is the agreement? The dimensions of podiums, the color of the backdrop, the way each candidate is addressed by the moderators, even the writing implements used by the participants are dealt with in the memorandum. And, more than just guidelines for the format, timing, and logistics of the debate, the contract systematically eliminates the spontaneity and intellectual grappling that lie at the heart of any true debate. For example, candidates are barred from asking one another questions and the audience is forbidden from participating “by any means other than by silent observation.” The candid candidate is dead.