By getting Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore to agree to a schedule of debates to be broadcast by major TV networks, the Commission on Presidential Debates has saved the day. At least, that's what we were told.
But who will save us from the commission? And can we trust the CPD to sponsor debates that will maximize audience and interest? History suggests not.
The Bush campaign has been roundly and deservedly rebuked for seeking debate venues that would limit the number of people watching. But in 1996, it was the Clinton-Gore campaign -- leading in the polls -- that wanted to reduce debate viewership.
Top Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos explained the strategy at a retrospective panel discussion in February 1997 at the Harvard Institute of Politics. Asked, "Why didn't you have the debates when people were watching the election?" Mr. Stephanopoulos replied: "Because we didn't want them to pay attention. And the debates were a metaphor for the campaign. We wanted the debates to be a non-event."
According to Mr. Stephanopoulos, here's how the CPD-sanctioned deal was made: "[The Republicans] didn't have leverage going into negotiations. They were behind. They needed to make sure [Reform Party candidate Ross] Perot wasn't in it. As long as we would agree to Perot not being in it, we could get everything else we wanted going in. We got our time frame, we got our length, we got our moderator [Jim Lehrer]."
Such a deal likely would have been resisted by the League of Women Voters, which sponsored the presidential debates through 1984. But the bipartisan CPD took control of the debates in 1988, when the nonpartisan league refused to bend to the dictates of the Republicans and Democrats.
"The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debates," it declared in October 1988, "because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions."
The CPD was launched in 1987 by the then-national chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, to promote the interests of the two major parties and to ward off third-party interlopers. Mr. Fahrenkopf and Mr. Kirk head the CPD today.
"Mr. Fahrenkopf indicated that the new Commission on Presidential Debates was not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates," the New York Times reported. "Mr. Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel should exclude third-party candidates from the debates." Mr. Kirk explained: "As a party chairman, it's my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system."
Through the years, the CPD has proved itself better at excluding challengers to the "two-party system" than at establishing firm and objective standards to promote real debates and big audiences.
Recent history suggests that nothing sparks interest in the debates like the inclusion of third-party candidates. In 1992, when Mr. Perot was included (both major parties calculated it would benefit them), the three presidential debates were viewed by record-breaking TV audiences, averaging 90 million people, with the audience growing for each successive debate. In 1996, with Mr. Perot excluded by the CPD, the debates had shrinking audiences that averaged only 41 million viewers. In November, most eligible voters didn't vote.
Once allowed in, third-party candidates not only build interest in the campaign, they sometimes win. Jesse Ventura proved the point in Minnesota in 1998 when he took his 10 percent poll support into a series of closely-watched debates and ended up beating "the two-party system" and becoming governor with 37 percent of the vote.
If the goal is to institutionalize debates as must-see events, it should be carried out by a genuinely nonpartisan group that is not predisposed against third-party candidates.
This year, the CPD is barring outsider candidates like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan since they lack 15 percent poll support -- a barrier that would have excluded Mr. Perot in 1992 and Mr. Ventura in 1998. Mr. Perot received 7 percent to 9 percent in four polls before the 1992 debates, Mr. Ventura got 10 percent before the Minnesota debate.
Yet a recent Zogby poll of 1,000 likely voters found that roughly 60 percent of the public wants Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan included.
Debates involving three or four ideologically diverse candidates would be good for democracy, especially on the many issues where Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush barely disagree -- such as trade, globalization, corporate welfare, capital punishment and the drug war. Inclusive debates would also be good for ratings.
If Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush really wanted the biggest audience possible, they'd call for the kind of open debates that the CPD has thwarted. Indeed, there's little stopping the TV networks from exercising their own judgment on who should debate, instead of letting the two major parties decide whether "the two-party system" faces competition.
A version of this originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun (9/28/00).