The parties even exercise pervasive control over the town hall debates, which one might think would be the most democratic and open considering questions are drawn from the audience. Questions are prescreened and approved by the moderator, and if someone in the crowd decides to go off-book or actually engage a candidate, their microphone will be cut off. Any follow-up discussion comes at the discretion of the moderator, who has been approved in advance by both campaigns. And looking at the list of this year’s moderators — Jim Lehrer, Martha Raddatz, Candy Crowley, Bob Schieffer — it’s hard to imagine that any of them will press the participants too hard. In fact, that’s precisely the point: in August, the Obama campaign moved to block anyone from Fox from moderating the debates and the Romney camp countered by threatening a boycott of the debates if an MSNBC anchor was chosen. (As an interesting side note, Lehrer seems to be a particularly safe choice for both parties: he’s moderated some 11 debates already, and had to be pulled out of retirement to do another one.)
As if all that wasn’t enough, this year the CPD will make the candidates’ job of “debating” even easier. For the first time, the CPD has released the topics of the first debate in advance of the October 3 Obama-Romney meeting. It seems that thorough planning and preparation now enjoy the same level of importance as probing questions.
Another major problem with these debates is that they exclude third-party candidates. While neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein has a realistic shot of winning the election, a substantial number of Americans believe in the need for a third party (even if the overwhelming majority will continue to vote either Democrat or Republican). The LWV allowed third-party candidate John B. Anderson, an Independent from Illinois, to participate in a 1980 presidential debate. In a juvenile display that was a harbinger of the way the major parties would later run the debates, Jimmy Carter refused to attend, claiming that his campaign would be better off if he remained absent than it would if he shared the stage with Anderson. However, since the CPD has taken over the debates, third-party candidates have been excluded on all but one occasion (Ross Perot in 1992).
This has done two things. First, it has eliminated from public view unique voices, issues, and proposals that lie outside either major party’s line. This only further reinforces the stock solutions to policy problems that have been regurgitated ad infinitum by each campaign (higher taxes and more regulation vs. lower taxes and less regulation). Secondly, it has given even more power to the two parties to dictate the format of the campaigns. For example, in David Broder’s Campaign for President: The Manager’s Look at ’96, George Stephanopoulos explains how the Clinton campaign used the exclusion of Ross Perot from the 1996 debates: “[The Dole campaign] didn’t have leverage going into [debate] negotiations. They were behind. They needed to make sure Perot wasn’t in. As long as we would agree to Perot not being in it, we could get everything else we wanted going in. We got our time frame, we got our length, we got our moderator.”