George Farah on the bipartisan campaign against open debates

Every four years, we watch a Democrat and a Republican talk about the tough issues in a series of presidential debates. Why are only two voices being heard?

FLORIDA, September 26, 2012 — The presidential debates are just around the corner.

With the first one scheduled for October 3, untold millions of Americans are surely wondering what Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will each have to say. Indeed, the debates are when many undecided voters make the all-important decision of who they will cast their respective ballots for.

Nonetheless, the debates themselves are the enduring subject of controversy. Across the political spectrum, there is the opinion that both major parties have conspired to silence alternative voices. Without a diverse array of ideas being represented on the national stage, the country as a whole becomes less informed about the issues that matter most.

George Farah is the founder and executive director of Open Debates, as well as the author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. In this first part of a detailed discussion with me, he explains about how the debates are arranged, why their exclusionary nature is a problem, and much more. 


Joseph F. Cotto: We are all familiar with presidential debates. What many do not know about, however, is how these are arranged. Can you give us an overview of this process?

George Farah: The presidential debates used to be run by a genuinely nonpartisan organization: the League of Women Voters. The League consistently resisted the major party candidates’ efforts to manipulate the debates. In 1980, the League invited an independent candidate, John B. Anderson, to participate in a debate despite President Jimmy Carter’s vociferous objections. In 1984, when the Republican and Democratic campaigns vetoed 80 proposed moderators, the League held a press conference and lambasted them for trying to eliminate difficult questions. In 1988, when the Republican and Democratic campaigns drafted a secret contract that severely constrained the debate format, the League refused to implement it and publicly accused the campaigns of “perpetrating a fraud on the American voter.”

The Republican and Democratic parties got tired of the League standing up to their candidates, and in 1986, the two parties ratified an agreement “to take over the presidential debates.” The next year, the two parties created the Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation primarily financed by Anheuser-Busch and other major corporations. The Commission, which absurdly claims to “have no relationship with any political party,” awards control of the debates to the Democratic and Republican candidates.  Every four years, negotiators for the major party nominees meet behind closed doors and draft secret contracts that dictate much of how the debates will be structured. The Commission implements and conceals the contracts, shielding the candidates from criticism. Indeed, the Commission permanently seized control of the debates in 1988 by implementing the very contract which the League had rejected.

The Commission’s monopoly over the presidential debates has harmed our democracy.  Without a sponsor willing to criticize the Republican and Democratic campaigns, the debates are often structured to accommodate the needs of risk-averse candidates, not voters. As a result, fewer debates are held than necessary, those debates employ stilted formats, and popular third party candidates are excluded.

A good example is 1996. That year, Republican nominee Bob Dole demanded the exclusion of Reform Party nominee Ross Perot, even though Perot had received $29 million in taxpayers’ funds for his campaign and over 76% of voters desired his inclusion. President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, wanted as few people as possible to watch the debates because he was comfortably leading in the polls. So, Clinton agreed to exclude Perot on the condition that follow-up questions were prohibited, one debate was canceled, and the remaining two debates were scheduled opposite the World Series. As intended, the two debates attracted the smallest television audience in history.

Cotto: One of the gravest concerns cited with modern presidential debates is their exclusionary nature. Why is it such a problem?

Farah: The presidential debates are the Superbowl of Politics. Tens of millions of voters tune-in to see the candidates sparring on the same stage at the same time. Any candidate excluded from the debates is instantly branded marginal and unworthy of substantial media or voter attention. Because the debates operate as gatekeepers to electability, it’s critical that the candidate selection process functions democratically and reflects the wishes of voters.

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, third-party candidates are routinely excluded from the Commission’s debates, even when a substantial majority of voters support their inclusion.  Perot’s exclusion in 1996 defied the wishes of three quarters of the electorate. In 2000, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan were excluded from the debates even though 64% of voters supported their inclusion. In fact, no third-party candidate has been allowed to participate in a presidential debate for the last 20 years.

The Commission argues that “over 200 candidates run for president every four years. We can’t let all of them on stage.” But talking about 200 candidates is entirely misleading.  Although about 200 people run for president every four years, no more than seven candidates have simultaneously been on enough state ballots to win an Electoral College majority since the inception of televised debates.   

Cotto: Is there any particular reason that many do not want a more inclusive debate format?

Farah: For one, third party candidates can win, and the two major parties don’t want that to happen. Six weeks before the 1998 gubernatorial election in Minnesota, Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura was at 10 percent in the polls. Minnesota public radio and the League of Women Voters hosted eight gubernatorial debates and insisted that Ventura be allowed to participate. On Election Day, Ventura won 37% of the vote and became the governor of Minnesota. When asked how he triumphed, Ventura simply said, “I was allowed to debate.”

But even when third-party candidates don’t win, they can introduce popular, groundbreaking issues that are eventually co-opted by the major parties. For example, third parties were first to raise the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, social security, child labor laws, public schools, the direct election of senators, paid vacation, unemployment compensation and much more. However, when third-party candidates are excluded from the debates, they’re unable to pierce the bipartisan silence on those issues in which the major parties are at odds with most of the American people.

Cotto: Over the last several years, American politics have become highly partisan. If the presidential debates offered more than two candidates, might this change?

Farah: Members of political parties are often subject to substantial pressure to toe the party line, which naturally inhibits bipartisan collaboration. Independent candidates, by contrast, are more at liberty to approach issues pragmatically and take positions on issues that defy ideological consistency. For that reason, the emergence of independent candidates – through, say, inclusion in the presidential debates — can facilitate legislative compromise and effectiveness.

Cotto: The Unites States’ two party system is thought of as being permanently entrenched. With a more diverse system of presidential debates, do you believe that a third, or possibly even a fourth, party might rise to prominence? 

Farah: The Constitution does not mention political parties, let alone a two-party system.  On the contrary, George Washington warned against the rise of dominant political “factions.”  So, there is nothing inherent about our political process that necessarily precludes the formation of multiple political parties.  In fact, the Republican Party basically started as a third party that rose to major party status with vigorous opposition to slavery. 

Today, more voters call themselves independents – approximately 40% — than at any other time in the last century. The two major parties are shedding supporters. With a plurality of voters disenchanted with or disconnected from either major party, the political landscape appears ripe for the emergence of a viable third party. Yet, the structural barriers that third parties face – discriminatory ballot access laws, scant media coverage, minimal financial support and, of course, presidential debate exclusion – help ensure that the two parties maintain their duopoly. More inclusive presidential debates could change that.

For example, in 1992, Ross Perot was invited to participate in the presidential debates.  President George Bush believed that Perot would take more votes from Governor Bill Clinton and insisted on Perot’s inclusion. The Commission, meanwhile, lobbied to exclude Perot from the debates and then tried to limit his participation to one debate. But eventually, the Commission relented to the major party nominees’ wishes. Perot was widely deemed the winner of the debates and, due to his performance, captured 19% of the vote, more than any third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. His electoral success laid the groundwork for the rise of the Reform Party, until his exclusion from the 1996 debates permanently stunted its growth.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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