Asking George Farah: Can we bring open debates to presidential campaigns?

Americans from both sides of the political spectrum want more inclusive presidential debates. How can we turn this wish into a reality?

FLORIDA, September 29, 2012 — October 3 is just a few days away.

Millions of Americans are sure to watch this presidential campaign’s first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Chances are that most viewers will be focused on current events, such as the Libyan conflict or the Great Recession. More than a few, though, might be wondering exactly why it is that only two candidates are talking about the essential issues.       

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 the first part of a detailed discussion with me, he explained how the debates are arranged and why their exclusionary nature is a problem. He goes on now to explain how the debate system can be reformed and whether or not progress has been made in achieving this reform. 


Joseph F. Cotto: Realistically speaking, how can America’s current system of presidential debates be reformed?

George Farah: There are three ways to reform the presidential debate process. 

First is sunlight. The only reason that Bob Dole and Bill Clinton could get away with excluding Perot and banning follow-up questions in 1996 is that they hid behind the Commission. A Hotline poll found that only 5 percent of eligible voters held the Clinton campaign responsible for Perot’s exclusion; only 13 percent blamed the Dole campaign; and over 50 percent blamed the CPD. If the public had known that Dole and Clinton were dictating the terms of the debates, there’s no way either candidate could have advocated Perot’s exclusion without paying an enormous price in the polls. 

So, if we make the negotiations as transparent as possible, we can force the candidates to operate more democratically. The candidates would have to welcome challenging formats and popular third-party candidates if they, rather than the Commission, were held accountable for the debates.   

The second way to reform the debate process is to replace the Commission with a genuinely nonpartisan sponsor that would follow in the footsteps of the League. Such a sponsor would operate transparently and resist the antidemocratic demands of the candidates, marshalling public support when necessary to protect the integrity of the debates. The sponsor would not oppose or support the inclusion of third-party candidates; rather, it would employ candidate selection criteria that left the decision in the hands of voters. If most voters only wanted to see two candidates participate, the sponsor would invite no more.  Yet, if most voters desired the inclusion of particular third-party candidates, those candidates would be included, regardless of major party opposition.

We can succeed in replacing the Commission. The debates have become so institutionalized that no candidate can avoid them without being perceived as cowardly. If we create an alternate debate sponsor that attracts extraordinary public support, the candidates can’t ignore its invitations without similarly being accused of cowardice. We just need to raise voters’ expectations so that they insist on participation in real debates, not candidate-controlled debates.  

The third way to obtain reform is to ramp up criticism of the Commission. Widespread criticisms of the Commission can force it to make small improvements in order to protect its reputation. Yet, the Commission will only pursue incremental format changes that are unlikely to antagonize the major party candidates. Under no circumstances will the Commission publicly stand up to the candidates it was established to protect.

Cotto: Has substantial progress been made as of late in building a more inclusionary system of presidential debates?

Farah: Yes and no. The campaign to make the negotiation process more transparent has achieved some concrete victories. Three secret debate contracts have been made public. I obtained copies of the 1992 and 1996 contracts from a whistleblower and published them in my book. In 2004, as a result of substantial pressure exerted by my organization, Open Debates, and other pro-democracy groups, the Kerry and Bush campaigns released a copy of the debate contract. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to obtain copies of debate contracts negotiated in 2000, 2008 or – at least so far – 2012.

We’ve also taken some important steps toward the creation of an alternate debate sponsor. We formed a Citizens’ Debate Commission comprised of 17 diverse civic leaders from a cross-section of liberal, moderate and conservative organizations. Twenty-three major newspapers enthusiastically endorsed the Citizens’ Debate Commission, and 60 civic groups served on its advisory board. Yet, the Citizen’s Debate Commission failed to persuade any major party nominees to participate in debates it hosted. This has only strengthened our resolve to build an alternate debate sponsor with even broader support from the civic community and the press.

Lastly, we’ve succeeded in persuading the Commission to make incremental improvements to the debate format. In the past, candidates established rules limiting their own responses to 60 or 90 seconds, thereby reducing the debates to mere exchanges of memorized soundbites. This year, in response to widespread criticism spearheaded by Open Debates, the debates will largely consist of 10-15 minute segments with few time restrictions, in order to further free-flowing discussion. This is certainly a positive development, but the format is still deeply flawed. The moderators for the coming debates were vetted by the candidates; the town-hall audience members’ questions will likely be screened and selected by the moderator prior to the debate; the candidates will likely be prohibited from asking each other any questions; and for the first time ever, the candidates will be told the 12 subject matters to be covered during the debates in advance.

Cotto: Is there bipartisan support for bringing new voices into presidential debates, or does such a thing typically find popularity with independent and third party voters?

Farah: There is widespread support to break the Commission’s monopoly over the presidential debates. The seizing of our most important public forums by a corporate-funded tool of the major parties is not a conservative, liberal or centrist issue – it’s an American issue. In my eight years of advocating debate reform, I have yet to encounter a single voter (unaffiliated with the Commission) who opposes our efforts to increase the number of debates, improve the stilted formats and ensure the inclusion of candidates that most voters want to see. That being said, independent and third party voters are exceptionally passionate about debate reform, as they tend to feel particularly marginalized.

Cotto: If our nation’s system of presidential debates remains as it is during the years ahead, what impact do you think this will have on national politics?

Farah: So long as the Commission controls the presidential debates, voter education will be limited, money will play a dominant role in deciding national elections, and political discourse will suffer from a sort of ideological containment. 

Voters are subject to a barrage of Super-PAC financed attack ads, and all that noise makes it increasingly difficult for them to figure who the candidates are and what they actually stand for. The debates provide the best opportunity for voters to directly evaluate the candidates themselves, thinking on their feet and engaged in unscripted discussion. The debates can be an antidote to the excessive and distorting influence of money over our national elections.   

The Republican primary debates this election cycle showed what is possible. There were an unprecedented 27 debates, sponsored by multiple entities and featuring a diversity of formats. Those debates generated intense exchanges and pointed questions between the candidates, and a record-high number of Americans tuned-in. With money and television commercials taking a backseat to the debates, the race was upended. Due to their debate performances, establishment favorite Rick Perry quickly tumbled in the polls, virtual unknown Herman Cain temporarily skyrocketed to co-front-runner status, and Newt Gingrich revived his campaign. 

Yet, with the Commission in charge, when the race graduates from the primary process to the general election, the debates will take a step backwards. The nominees will only face-off three times; the formats will be much more sanitized; and popular third party candidates will be excluded. As a result, money will remain a dominant force in presidential politics, and excluded third party voices will be unable to inject fresh ideas into our political discourse. 

Cotto: How did you come to be an advocate for more inclusionary presidential debates? Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Farah: I’ve long been passionate about protecting and expanding democracy, which is really the only viable mechanism to preserve liberty and distribute power from kings to the rest of us.

I think my commitment to democracy in part comes from my own experience of living in places without it. When I was seven years old, my family moved from California to an American compound in Saudi Arabia. Within the high, concrete walls of the compound, we enjoyed the freedoms of the United States – people suntanned at pools and families barbecued while arguing about politics. But outside those walls was intimidating desert, where women were rarely seen and never heard and men only whispered their grievances to avoid retribution from secret police. For five years, from inside that compound looking out, I was a sort of voyeur of an alternate universe deprived of liberty.  

As a result, I rarely take freedom for granted and spend much of my time advocating for voices that are being shut out by powerful interests, both in the political arena and in the marketplace. In addition to pursuing debate reform, I practice law, primarily antitrust law on behalf of small businesses and farmers. I speak out against collusion between major parties that draft secret debates contracts, and prosecute collusion between large companies that fix prices. I aim to break the monopoly the Commission exercises over our presidential debates, and file lawsuits to break monopolies that companies have unlawfully obtained. 

The goal is to ensure that both the political process and the marketplace accurately reflect the aspirations of the American people, not moneyed interests.


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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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