Save 'genuine' presidential debates

Since 1988, the general election presidential debates have been controlled by a private corporation - the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) - that has deceptively served the interests of the Republican and Democratic parties at the expense of the American people. And for the first time in 16 years, there is a vigorous, organized effort to return control of the presidential debates to a genuinely nonpartisan champion of voter education.

Presidential debates were nobly run by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters until 1988, when the national Republican and Democratic parties seized control of the debates by establishing the CPD. Cochaired by Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk - former heads of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively - the CPD secretly submits to the demands of the Republican and Democratic candidates. Documents obtained from a whistleblower and published in my recent book, "No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates," show that negotiators for the major party nominees jointly draft debate contracts behind closed doors. These contracts dictate precisely how the debates will be run - from decreeing who can participate, to selecting who will ask the questions, to ordaining the temperature in the auditoriums. The CPD merely implements and conceals the contracts, shielding the major party candidates from public criticism.

Anheuser-Busch, US Airways, and other corporations foot most of the bill for these candidate- controlled pseudo-debates through tax-deductible contributions to the CPD. The corporate connection is not surprising; Mr. Fahrenkopf is the nation's leading gambling lobbyist, and Mr. Kirk has lobbied on behalf of pharmaceutical companies.

The consequences of such deceptive major-party control are predictable and distressing. Candidates that voters want to see are often excluded from the general election presidential debates, such as Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and Pat Buchanan. Issues the American people want to hear about - such as free trade, government waste, child poverty, and immigration - are often ignored. And the debates have been reduced to a series of glorified bipartisan news conferences, in which the Republican and Democratic candidates merely recite prepackaged soundbites to fit 90-second response slots. Walter Cronkite, who served as a panelist for a 1960 presidential debate, called the CPD-sponsored debates an "unconscionable fraud" and accused the major party candidates of "sabotaging the electoral process." Accordingly, debate viewership has plummeted; 25 million fewer people watched the 2000 presidential debates than watched the 1992 presidential debates.

The major party candidates are rarely blamed for their covert debate manipulations because the CPD conceals the agreements from the public and conveniently assumes responsibility for the debates. If the major party candidates transparently hosted their own debates in their own living rooms, at least they would be held accountable for them. And under the ensuing public scrutiny, the candidates would be less likely to select compliant moderators, to exclude popular third-party challengers, to prohibit candidate-to-candidate dialogue, and to avoid discussing difficult issues.

Open Debates, a new nonprofit organization, is engaged in a broad national campaign to reform the debate process. In addition to aggressively exposing the antidemocratic practices of the CPD, Open Debates has helped form a genuinely nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission to sponsor future presidential debates that address pressing national issues, feature innovative formats, and include the candidates that Americans want to see.

Aspiring to reverse the decline in debate viewership, this new commission consists of 17 national civic leaders from across the political spectrum - including such diverse leadership as Jehmu Green of Rock the Vote; Heritage Foundation cofounder Paul Weyrich; former independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson; Chellie Pingree of Common Cause; former US ambassador to the United Nations Alan Keyes; and Norman Dean of Friends of the Earth. All told, representatives of more than 60 diverse civic organizations serve on the advisory board.

The battle for control of the presidential debates has officially begun: Will there be real and transparent presidential debates that maximize voter education, or stilted and deceptive bipartisan news conferences that maximize major-party control?

The candidate-controlled debate commission has scheduled three presidential debates - the first to be held Sept. 30 at the University of Miami - and one vice presidential debate. Our new, genuinely nonpartisan debate commission has scheduled its own meetings between the candidates - five presidential and one vice-presidential. The first is set for Sept. 22 at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

Now, the question is whether President Bush and Sen. John Kerry will take up our invitation to a real debate. The Republican and Democratic nominees will participate in the debates proposed by the new Citizens' Debate Commission only if the political benefit outweighs the political cost. And that calculus will only be achieved if enough voters demand democratic debates from the candidates.

George Farah is founder and executive director of the civic group Open Debates, the author of 'No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates,' and a member of the Citizens' Debate Commission.

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