Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, October 3, 2004
by Susan Ives
A room full of 15-year-olds were meeting the coach for the first time.
“What is debate?” he asked. With his buzz cut and bulldog stance he looked like he was preparing us for the football field rather than the podium.
Hands shot up. No shrinking violets in the debate team tryouts. “It’s argument.” “It’s logic.” “It’s public speaking about public policy.”
The coach shook his head. “Debate is a search for the truth. Never forget that.”
I haven’t forgotten. And that’s why the presidential and vice presidential debates we’re now watching don’t impress me one jot. It’s not debate. It’s not a search for the truth. It is, many have commented, an extended sound bite, scripted by a 32-page memorandum that controls everything from the color of the backdrop to the source of the questions.
But controlled by whom?
I found the answer in “No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic parties secretly control the presidential debates,” by George Farah, director and founder of Open Debates, a Washington nonprofit with a mission to reform the presidential debate process.
Farah explains how the official-sounding Commission on Presidential Debates wrested the event from the League of Women Voters in 1988.
The Democratic and Republican parties had a beef with the league. In 1980, President Carter refused to participate when the league invited third party candidate John Anderson to be on the platform with him and Republican Ronald Reagan.
In 1984 the fight was about moderators. The league submitted 12 names for the first debate; all were rejected by one party or the other. By the end of the negotiations, Farah says, 71 more names were submitted and only three were approved.
Enough already! The two main parties put their noodles together and formed the Commission on Presidential Debates. They’ve run the show since 1986. Bet you thought the commission was a government body. I did. It’s not. The commission leadership is a roster of party notables. The co-chairs, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, are former chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties.
This signals, Farah says, that their goals are far from nonpartisan. They are bipartisan, a difference worth noting. Their aim is to maintain a two-party system. No third party candidate has been invited since they took over, a record maintained by requiring that a candidate show 15 percent of the projected vote in five national polls to earn an invitation.
The system structures the debates to make the candidates look good. The rules of the debate were written by the Kerry and Bush campaigns and submitted to the commission, not the other way around.
Over the years, the format has become more protective of the candidates, offering fewer chances to goof up. In 1992, the town hall audience could ask anything. Follow-up and clarification questions were nixed in 1996. In 2000, as this year, questions had to be screened by the moderator ahead of time.
Farah also maintains that corporate interests have insinuated themselves into the process. In 1992, tobacco company Philip Morris, a $250,000 contributor, got to hang a banner visible on television during the post-debate interviews. In 2000 Anheuser-Busch, which gave $500,000 to the commission, was allowed to hand out pamphlets decrying “unfair beer taxes.”
Such contributions, Farah says, “sustain a business-friendly two-party system and limit robust debate over corporate accountability issues.”
Farah recommends creating a citizens commission that would rewrite the rules to foster meaningful debate and lowering the threshold to a 5 percent showing in national polls, a change that would have added Ross Perot to the debate in 1996 and both Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in 2000.
The debates will no doubt influence the election, but don’t fool yourself into thinking they are searching for the truth. Any 15-year-old knows better.