Jul 16 2003

Presidential Debates Are Duopoly by Design

“We have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American people,” proclaimed the League of Women Voters in abandoning sponsorship of a scheduled 1988 presidential debate. The League withdrew to expose the Democrats’ and Republicans’ attempt to dictate every detail– down to camera placement– of the “debates” that today deserve to be called infomercials.

The LWV has not participated since, but was replaced by an entity with no such reservations about duopoly control– or subjecting viewers to events that make watching professional bowling a more engaging alternative.

To America’s disgrace, a private corporation has since directed the nationally televised presidential debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates, a joint creation of the Democratic and Republican parties, has— surprise!– created rules that will shut out any third party or independent candidates and displays only its owners’ nominees.

Imagine the revolt that would occur if Americans were dictated to choose between just Miller and Budweiser, yet there’s barely a murmur over our being denied choices beyond the controlling parties’ candidates!

These debates are the single most influential forum for voters and offer a rare opportunity to hear candidates’ ideas in more than 10-second sound bites. Real debates now have been replaced by– in the Commission’s own words–“nationally televised joint appearances between nominees of the two major political parties.” Yet the Commission has the nerve to call itself “non-partisan.”

The Commission effectively decides which candidates we see with no public accountability. Corporations pay the Commission’s bills, with Anheuser Busch Inc. leading the pack by buying its own debate– $550,000 for exclusive sponsorship of the October 17 event in St. Louis. These corporate sponsors are unlikely to protest the exclusion of candidates questioning, say, the legitimacy of corporations funding political campaigns–citizens should.

The Commission has dictated that a candidate possess the expected votes of 15% of the public to share a stage with the dominant parties’ nominees– three times the 5% threshold parties must meet to receive public election funds. Moreover, the five polls used to determine support routinely add the option of third-party candidates only after asking whether the respondent supports Bush or Gore.

These polls are conducted by five media mega-corporations that have reaped windfalls from bipartisan non-enforcement of anti-trust law and gifts to broadcast corporations in the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

In the previous 40 years, only two candidates from outside the two dominant parties have participated in the presidential debates: John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992.

Though he ran as an independent, Anderson was an incumbent Republican congressman with the enormous advantages of 20 years in office–yet he polled only 13%-18% just prior to the debates and took 7% of the popular vote. In October 1992, independent candidate Perot polled between 7-9% immediately prior to the debates, well under the present absurd barriers, but captured 19% of the popular vote after debating. His inclusion helped boost voting by a stunning 12 million from the previous presidential election.

Perot’s populist critique of corporate “free trade” pacts was a vital addition to the forum, yet the Commission raised the barriers to participation in the next election and excluded him from the debates, labeling him “unelectable.” Of course, the power to hide a candidate makes the label self-fulfilling.

Without a dissenting voice to create real debate, less than half as many Americans watched the 1996 Clinton/Dole snoozefest as 1992’s three-way debates. Notably, viewership dropped with each debate, in contrast to the three-way 1992 debates, which drew progressively larger audiences. Exclusive Commission forums would further diminish public interest.

Jesse Ventura’s election as Governor of Minnesota in 1998 offers a more recent illustration of the absurdity of Commission criteria. Ventura averaged just 10% support in September polls before participating in five televised debates, and no major poll identified him as a front-runner, yet he decisively won the election.

With over a hundred declared presidential candidates, limiting the number of debate participants is necessary. But simply requiring that candidates appear on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance to win immediately drops the field to a maximum of six– the same number as in most of this year’s Republican primaries. After an initial debate, the field could fairly be narrowed with more stringent criteria.

Regardless of one’s views on the optimum number of debaters, an unaccountable private corporation has no place controlling this vital part of our democratic process. We must demand the Commission’s duopoly-by-design be replaced with a public body that will nourish, not subvert democracy. We should also question how we allowed such fundamental corruption of our republic at all.

Versions of this have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, San Jose Mercury News and many other publications.