Debate Commission Stifles Independent Voices
Let's face it. The dull similarities of Southerners George W. Bush and Al Gore aside, at this point in the election cycle most people would no sooner vote for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader or Reform Party presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan than they would write in the name of their dog or cat.
That doesn't mean these same voters wouldn't like to hear Nader and Buchanan debate the Republican and Democratic candidates on national television.
They might want to hear someone raise these kinds of questions:
Should we ban the death penalty? Is it racist? Should we have a free trade pact with China? Should we continue with trade policies that encourage U.S. corporations to ship American jobs to low-paid workers overseas, and that undermine environmental protection to boot? Should we build a new missile defense system? Any more B-2 bombers? Should we cut out HMOs and corporate profits from health care and move to a government-insured universal health insurance system like Canada's? Should we enforce deadly sanctions against Iraq? Should we be waging war in Colombia right now? Should we have allowed Exxon and Mobil to merge? Should we stop other mergers? Do they have something to do with the rise in oil prices? Should we pass living-wage laws? Should genetically engineered food carry mandatory labels?
Unless Nader and Buchanan take part in the debates, these overriding questions will never even be raised.
But the likelihood of Nader and Buchanan joining Bush and Gore on the podium is slim. This despite the fact that in '96, nearly 70 percent of those polled wanted to see independent candidate Ross Perot in the national debates. And that today, nearly half the American electorate is registered as neither Democrat nor Republican. And that a recent Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll shows 67 percent of Americans want a strong third-party movement to run candidates for president, Congress and state offices.
The reasons Gore and Bush will likely stand alone onstage are at once simple and complex, and include everything from ballot access to polling averages. They all lead, however, back to one troubling entity -- the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The "commission" was formed in 1987 to ensure that presidential and vice presidential debates were a permanent part of every general election. In mission, the group is nonprofit and nonpartisan.
The reality is very different. While maintaining its nonprofit status, the CPD is decidedly partisan and completely gutless.
Created and run by former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. and former Democratic National Committee chair Paul Kirk with a board made up entirely of Republicans and Democrats, the commission runs at the whim of the two political parties, according to critics.
"The CPD is bought and paid for by the two-party system," says Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor who represented Perot in his 1996 complaint against the Federal Election Commission after Perot was barred from the debates.
The commission's monopoly-by-default on debate coverage is important. Debates are one of the main tools voters use to choose who they'll vote for. In the last three general election cycles, TV audiences for these debates ranged from 50 million to 97 million per debate. No wonder Buchanan filed an FEC complaint within days of the debate commission announcing its criteria for inclusion in this year's debates. Nader filed a lawsuit against the FEC this spring.
Missing the debates means missing a shot at the election.
"It shouldn't just be a horse race approach to the debates," says John Anderson, an independent presidential candidate in 1980 who cites being kicked out of the second presidential debate as a key reason for his drop in the polls. "It ought to be the broader concept of imparting issues. Voices pertinent to that shouldn't be silenced."
The need for a group to oversee the debates is a real one. Before 1976, they occurred more or less at the caprice of the candidates.
In 1960, for instance, Richard Nixon tried hard to avoid debating John Kennedy. He ultimately gave in -- and resoundingly lost the battle of telegenics. There were no debates in 1952, '56, '64, '68 or '72, in large part because some of the candidates didn't want to debate.
In an effort to make debates occur more regularly, the League of Women Voters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group dedicated to voter education, took over debate sponsorship in 1976. Their troubles began not long after.
The candidates were the first problem. In '76, for instance, Jimmy Carter wanted President Gerald Ford to stand in a hole in floor to equalize their heights, while Ford wanted the presidential seal on his lectern. The league ultimately denied both requests.
The 1980 debate marked the beginning of the end of the league's involvement. Using a variety of criteria, including the requirement that candidates have a least a 15 percent standing in national polls, the league determined third-party candidate John Anderson should join the first debate. "We got ripped to shreds over that," recalls the league's then-president, Nancy Neuman. President Carter refused to attend, so Anderson debated Ronald Reagan. The league took a lot of heat, and Anderson, who subsequently dropped to 9 percent in the polls, didn't join the second debate.
But the Democrats and Republicans had already seen enough to make them worried. "Over time, candidates got annoyed because we treated everyone the same," says Neuman.
The parties' concerns only increased as they continued to try to gain more control over the debates and failed. In 1984, Neuman says, the candidates even tried to pick the questioners.
By 1987, the two parties formed the current commission, which bid against the league for the 1988 debate sponsorship. The candidates gave the commission sponsorship of the first presidential and vice presidential debates, and the second and third debates to the league.
But after the first debate, the candidates presented the league with the rules they had negotiated with the more cooperative commission. Among those rules: allowing candidates to review the moderator's script and barring follow-up questions. The hall also had to be stacked with candidate supporters, rather than the public, as had been the league's procedure. The candidates said that if the league didn't like the rules, the candidates would go elsewhere -- i.e., back to the commission.
The league withdrew -- Neuman didn't like sponsoring a debate so out of the league's control. The CPD was now the official sponsor.
Organizing the debates has continued be a challenge, because the candidates ultimately decide the terms under which they will participate. In 1988, the commission proposed three presidential debates and one vice presidential match-up. The George Bush campaign rejected that proposal out of hand, so Bush and Michael Dukakis strategists got together and agreed on two presidential and one vice presidential debates. The commission went along.
The same pattern occurred in '92. Once again, Bush was the sticking point, and once again campaign representatives met, without any commission members present, to hammer out their debate scenario of choice.
Among the demands this time were that the debates would have four formats, including the town meeting format with which Bill Clinton felt so comfortable, and that outsider Ross Perot would be allowed to join in.
Perot's invitation might have appeared to signal a new openness on the part of the Republicans and Democrats. But in reality, the Bush camp was hoping Perot, with his budget charts and economic fanfare for the common man, would steal some of challenger Clinton's votes.
The commission was against inviting Perot, in fact, and against staging more than two debates. The campaigns refused to give in. You know the rest.
In '96, it was the Clinton administration that used Perot as leverage. In a post-election conference at Harvard, Clinton senior adviser George Stephanopolous spoke candidly of the backroom machinations. The Dole-Kemp campaign, which was already dead in the water, did not want Perot included.
"As long as we could agree to Perot not being in it, we could get everything else we wanted going in," Stephanopolous said, adding that the Democrats had no interest in having Perot in the debate anyway.
"We didn't want people to pay attention," he told those at the conference. "We wanted the debates to be a non-event."
Perot filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, charging that the commission had acted as a political committee and that having corporate TV sponsors of the debates -- Anheuser-Busch, Sprint and Philip Morris were among the '96 sponsors -- violated FEC regulations.
The FEC's general counsel apparently agreed, finding "reason to believe" that the commission had acted as a political committee and that the sponsorships were illegal in-kind contributions. He proposed an investigation and a series of subpoenas to determine exactly how the commission decided to exclude Perot, who in '92 had received 18.9 percent of the vote.
But the debate commission board unanimously voted to override the analysis and recommendations of the FEC's top lawyer. On to the next debate.
The disregard of the general counsel's advice and the burgeoning knowledge of party involvement in the pre-debate process has opened the debate commission to increasing criticism that it is a pawn of the Republican and Democratic parties, interested only in maintaining the two-party status quo.
"The commission's goal is to have candidates in a forum that's not risky," says Neuman. "They want to get their candidates elected."
So the commission creates criteria that make it virtually impossible for independent candidates to join the debates.
In January, the commission announced the structure and eligibility criteria for this year's debates, which kick off in Boston on Oct. 3. Each will be 90 minutes long and focus on a mix of domestic and international topics. Each will have a single moderator and will encourage direct exchanges between candidates. Formats will include at least one town meeting in which candidates respond to questions from citizens not aligned with any campaign, one in which candidates are seated at a table with a moderator, and one in which the candidates are standing behind lecterns.
Participation will be based on three criteria: constitutional eligibility, ballot access and electoral support. That means a candidate must be at least 35 and a natural born American citizen. He must be on enough ballots to have a mathematical chance of getting an electoral college majority, and he must have at least 15 percent support in an average of five national public opinion polls.
The criteria had no sooner been announced than critics cried foul. Buchanan filed his FEC complaint, the response to which was due this week. Nader, Susan Sarandon and Phil Donahue -- two of the chairs of the Nader 2000 steering committee -- and Hartford City Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff (elected as a Green) joined other plaintiffs in filing suit against the FEC in federal court in Boston. Nader's suit challenged the FEC's regulations on corporate sponsorship of presidential debates.
"Obviously, the process is exclusionary in nature," says Horton Sheff. "It's an insult to democracy. By allowing only certain people media exposure, someone out there is picking our candidates for us."
A major concern is the use of polls to determine national support. Raskin, the law professor who represented Perot in his '96 FEC complaint and is of counsel to the Nader suit, says the polls do not ask the right questions. Rather than asking people whom they would favor seeing included in the debate, the polls instead ask whom they would vote for.
"Each little tweak can make slight differences," says Howard Fienberg, a research analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan social and scientific research organization. "Slight differences can make a big difference in polls. Averaging across polls sounds great, but each one is different."
"The problem with the 15 percent mark is that it's just plucked out of thin air," says Raskin, noting that the benchmark to receive matching federal funds is 5 percent. Not to mention that a candidate with, say, 12 percent support represents more than 17 million registered voters. What of all those voters who are left to their second choice?
Supporters of the 15 percent standard, such as Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder, downplay the cutoff mark. By the first debate in October, a serious candidate should be higher than 5 percent, Schroeder says. "If you haven't gotten that far by then, the debate is not about ratifying a candidacy."
Ballot access is another concern. The U.S. has the most severe ballot access laws of any democracy in world, according to Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News, a nonpartisan newsletter tracking ballot access laws. In the Russian republic, for instance, running for president in 1991 required only valid signatures equaling 1/7 of 1 percent of the voting public.
Winger says independent presidential candidates and third-party nominees need about 750,000 valid signatures to get on general election ballots in all 50 states. That's a big change since 1924, when only 75,000 signatures were needed. Laws became increasingly restrictive as the two dominant parties grew increasingly eager to keep their world safe, Winger says. Restrictions increased, for instance, between 1948 and 1953, when fear of the Communist Party was particularly strong. More were added between 1969 and 1975, after George Wallace got 13 percent of the vote as an independent in the 1968 presidential election.
The ties between the polls and partisanship come into sharp focus with corporate sponsorship of the debates. Anheuser-Busch recently announced it would pay $550,000 to sponsor this year's St. Louis debate, as well as giving the commission itself an undisclosed amount of funding. Past debate sponsors have included Lucent Technologies, Sara Lee Corp., Ford Motor Co., Prudential, IBM and J.P. Morgan & Co.
"To have corporate community sponsorship of the debates is another clear example of where we have gone off track," says Anderson. "It's a travesty."
He and others point to the money these organizations have donated to the Republican and Democratic National Committees as proof of the potential problem. In the current election cycle, FEC documents show, Anheuser-Busch has donated more than $1.1 million to Republican and Democratic campaigns. Philip Morris has given $3.1 million, Lucent Technologies $107,500 and Sprint $783,079, to name just a few.
"Unlawful corporate contributions to the debates corrupts the political process, tilts the electoral playing field sharply toward the Democratic and Republican parties, undermining third parties and limiting the choices of voters," Nader commented in his Web site story announcing his lawsuit.
Nader's suit alleges that the FEC, in allowing corporations to sponsor presidential debates, violated the Federal Election Campaign Act. It prohibits corporate contributions and expenditures to campaigns for federal office.
"We have a legal wall of separation between private corporations and public elections, just like the wall separating church and state," Raskin says.
The potential ties and conflicts of interest increase, according to Raskin, when counting the money donated to Republicans and Democrats by the corporate parents of some of the organizations sponsoring the polls the commission uses. Take the ABC News/Washington Post poll. ABC is owned by Disney, which to date has given $170,000 to Republican and $168,000 to Democratic national committees or other congressional campaigns, according to the FEC Web site.
Similarly, General Electric owns NBC, which in turn is part of the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll used by the commission. As of the last update on the FEC Web site, GE had given $50,000 to the Democrats and $100,500 to Republicans. Time Warner, which owns CNN (part of the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll) has donated $100,000 to Democrats and $78,000 to Republicans. CBS, which is part of the CBS/New York Times poll, is owned by Westinghouse, which has given $34,400 to Republicans and $15,000 to Democrats.
Raskin doesn't suggest these corporate parents control the polls, "but it's a structural conflict of interest."
All of these criticisms can, in some way, be tied up in a basic difference of opinion about why the debates exist in the first place. Almost universally, critics believe the debates should be about informing the public about issues rather than about presenting the views of leading candidates.
Commission Executive Director Janet Brown's response to that suggestion is an emphatic no.
"The CPD decided it wanted to put on debates with a small number of leading candidates who could be the next president," she says. "That's just the way we decided to do it."
She is dismayed by suggestions that the commission is swayed by sponsors or the two major parties. "None of our sponsors have any influence on decisions regarding the debates," she says. "The fact is that sponsors get listed in the program and that's about it."
Chairmanship of the commission board aside, Brown insists the parties are hands-off as well. They have nothing to do with fundraising, leadership or staff input, she says. "The inclusion of Perot in '92 shows we mean what we say when we say we put an enormous amount of time into third parties."
As for the 15 percent polling cutoff, "The position of the commission board is, this is not a place to jump-start a candidacy," Brown says, reiterating that the debates take place five weeks before Election Day. "The candidates, parties and public have had a significant amount of time to learn about each other."
The bottom line, she adds, is that the commission has never insisted it be the only debate game in town. "There is a perception we are the gatekeeper to the election. We are one nonprofit agency."
It's unlikely the national parties will lead the charge to change. Dagoberto Vega, a spokesman for Gore's campaign, says, "We want to have as many debates as possible. The guidelines about who participates are already established by the CPD. We don't tend to second-guess their guidelines."
A Bush spokesman stumbles through a non-answer to the question of Bush's stance on opening up the debates. "There will be plenty of time for debates when the voters are paying closer attention. It's to be expected there will be a reasonable threshold level of support."
But even if the parties did decide to push for reform, the commission already has a history of ignoring advice. Besides voting against the FEC general counsel's recommendations, the debate commission has also ignored suggestions made in 1995 as a result of a forum held by the Century Foundation. Among its conclusions, discussed at length in a pamphlet called Let America Decide, are:
The CPD should have a broader membership so people who are not connected with the two parties can be included. "While we believe that party interests should be represented in debates process," the authors wrote, "we also feel that the commission should not be exposed to misperceptions or criticisms that may result from its bipartisan membership." The CPD should have specific and public procedures for appointing members. No one knows who they are or how they are chosen. It is a self-perpetuating body with no provision for regular change in membership. The CPD should create an endowment, which "will reduce the commission's dependence on sponsors who must be approached on a regular basis at a time when corporate and foundation resources face greater and greater pressures." While the focus remains on "major" candidates, the commission should review criteria to make sure "any candidate with broad public support and a real likelihood of having a substantial impact on the outcome of the election" is invited to debate. There should be at least four presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, starting in early September rather than October.
Despite the commission's silence on these recommendations, critics still plan to push for change. The Appleseed Project, a national coalition for electoral reform sponsored by American University and Harvard, among others, suggests using a 5 percent threshold in national polls or a 50 percent rating in a poll asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included in the debates. The task force sent these suggestions to the commission in April.
Brown says they were too late to make an impact this election cycle.
The commission might consider those recommendations after this election, however. "We have reviewed criteria after every cycle," Brown says. "We're happy to consider anybody's ideas."