The truth about presidential debates

Brian Kelly Assistant Editor, The New Criterion
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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.

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.”

Moreover, since the CPD has taken over, corporate sponsorship (tax deductible, of course) of the debates has attracted some of Washington’s most powerful lobbies, which essentially use the events as vehicles for soft-money contributions while advertising their products and services. Major sponsors have come from the auto, tobacco, finance, insurance, and communications industries, and have included Ford, Philip Morris, J.P. Morgan, Prudential, AT&T, and Sprint, just to name a few. (For reference, this year’s debates are being sponsored by Anheuser-Busch Companies, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Sheldon S. Cohen, Esq., Crowell & Moring LLP, the International Bottled Water Association, the Kovler Fund, and Southwest Airlines.)

The result: debates where the setting and participants’ responses are equally staged. Political debates used to serve as beacons of truthfulness in carefully scripted campaigns, where candid moments were frequent and presidential candidates were forced to address difficult questions. They don’t anymore.

Unlike the LWV, the CPD takes issue neither with fraud nor with the hoodwinking of America. Instead, debates continue to become ever-more scripted and planned, and those most intimately involved are all too willing to perpetuate the myth that the debates are open and unscripted in exchange for the opportunity to make another well-rehearsed stump speech. When the Obama and Romney camps meet in Colorado, Kentucky, New York, and Florida this month, the only real losers will be the increasingly misinformed American people.

Brian Kelly is a freelance writer, the assistant editor at The New Criterion, and a recent graduate of Brown University.