By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – Over the next four weeks, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will face each other on the same stage three times.
The three debates will span 270 total minute across three cities – Denver, Colo., Hempstead, N.Y. and Boca Raton, Fla. – with each expected to be watched by more than 50 million people. Before they are over, there will likely be moments that add to the storied role televised debates have played in determining the chief executive of the United States.
Even those with halfhearted interest in the campaign are likely to tune in to the debates, as they offer the most obvious opportunity to compare the two candidates side-by-side.
But what is less obvious to the casual observer is that the whole thing – from what is seen on television to important details that rarely see the light of day – is orchestrated by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the dates, times, locations and media coverage for three presidential debates and the vice-presidential debates.
According to its website, the commission was formed to “provide the best information to viewers and listeners,” but critics say the bipartisan organization has turned the debates into a manufactured event that purposefully excludes alternative views while keeping the major party candidates sheltered from difficult questions about big issues that affect the American public.
The commission is “strictly a creation of the Republican and Democratic national committees,” said John Berg, a professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston.
Mostly, the debates serve as a platform to learn how the candidates perform under pressure, Berg said, but are not the best forum for the discussion of important and detailed policies.
And since the two parties participating in the debate set the rules, they get to avoid the uncomfortable questions that might otherwise be asked if the debate was moderated by journalists operating in the best interest of the American public.
“Issues that neither party wants to discuss won’t come up,” said Berg. “It really limits things.”
Secret birth of a bipartisan commission
The commission was born in 1987 when the two major parties signed a secret agreement – ominously titled a “Memorandum of Understanding” – that detailed everything from the selection of venues and panelists to the heights of podiums and the camera angles to be used.
More importantly, the agreements also detail how the candidates are allowed to interact with one another – such as in 2004, when the two parties agreed to avoid any direct questioning between the candidates.
The agreements are kept secret, but some have been obtained and leaked by Open Debates, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for reforms to the debate process that would take the two parties out of their positions of control.
George Farrah, executive director of Open Debates, said the commission’s current set-up undermines democracy.
“Because of the commission’s subservience to the Republican and Democratic campaigns, the presidential debates are structured to accommodate the wishes of risk-adverse candidates, not voters,” he said.
But it has not always been this way.
The first televised presidential debate in history occurred in 1960 – the famous showdown between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon that many political experts believe tipped the close election into Kennedy’s favor.
The next debate did not occur until 1976, when the League of Women Voters, a national nonpartisan nonprofit organized a debate between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
From that year through 1984, the league continued organizing presidential debates – until the two major parties decided to step in and take over.
Before the 1988 presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee reached an agreement on how to conduct future presidential debates and attempted to get the league to acquiesce to their demands.
The league refused – so the two parties formed the commission and appointed former national chairmen as the first co-chairs.
Nancy Neuman, the then-president of the League of Women Voters, slammed the power grab during a press conference in February 1987.
“The league has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public,” she said at the time.
Elisabeth McNamara, the current national president of the League of Women Voters, told Watchdog.org in an interview on Tuesday that the group still views the debates as a valuable part of the election process.
Though they would be willing to get back involved in organizing the debates, the League has no expectations that it would be asked to do so, she added.
Albert May, a professor of media and public relations at George Washington University, said the formation of the commission in 1988 has institutionalized the debates as a key part of the presidential campaign.
Having a guaranteed set of debates each cycle is preferable to the old system where debates were “hit or miss” prior to 1988, but the consequence has been to give the two major parties “a hammerlock” on the national discussion, he said.
“Overall, I think it’s been a healthy development, but it does come with tradeoffs,” May said.
Third parties not welcome
The commission describes itself as nonpartisan – in the same way the League of Women Voters does – but it is more accurately described as bipartisan. Rather than being removed from the partisan nature of the election, as the league and other independent groups are, it is entirely controlled by the interests of the two parties.
Need proof? Look no farther than the two men who serve as co-chairman of the commission this year: Frank Fahrenkopf and Michael McCurry.
Fahrenkopf is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the current president of the American Gaming Association, which represents the gambling industry.
McCurry is a former press secretary for President Bill Clinton and now works at a powerful Washington lobbying firm.
These are two men who know how to make something ugly look good.
From its beginning, the commission has been openly hostile to third-party participants. At a press conference to announce the formation of the commission, both chairmen acknowledged that they opposed the inclusion of third party candidates in future debates.
This year, Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson has sued the commission and the two major parties under the federal Sherman Anti-Trust Act, alleging that the three organizations conspire to exclude third parties from the debates.
“The acts of the defendant…to conspire and contract between and amongst themselves to monopolize the field in the race for president and vice-president harm the American electorate,” reads a portion of the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in September.
Johnson is on the ballot in 47 states and in Washington, D.C., and his poll numbers have been as high as 10 percent in some surveys.
The commission’s guidelines for participation this year require that a candidate have at least 15 percent of the vote in five national polls.
Being able to participate in debates would make a “big difference,” for third parties, Berg said, thanks to the free publicity they would receive.
Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @WatchdogOrg on Twitter