Presidential Debates? Pass the Remote . . . and more
Open Debates is also taking legal action to reform the debate process. In April of 2004, Open Debates filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in an attempt to revoke the tax status of the Commission on Presidential Debates. "The CPD violates Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids such organizations from participating or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate for public office. Instead of engaging in nonpartisan voter education, the CPD executes the joint demands of the Republican and Democratic nominees concerning the presidential debates, and shields the Republican and Democratic nominees from public accountability," said Open Debates Director Farah. As yet, no action has been taken on this complaint..
From Bill Moyers' NOW
Presidential debates can change the course of elections, but George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, has evidence showing that the debates' rules of order have been hijacked by the two main political parties. The result? Moderators can't ask follow-up questions, important issues are never raised, and credible third-party candidates are excluded from the proceedings altogether.
Open Debates is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to reforming the Presidential debate process through education and action. Open Debates contends that the control of the debates by theCommission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a private bipartisan corporation, results in the exclusion of popular candidates, and the avoidance of pressing national issues. Open Debates is promoting an alternative Presidential debate sponsor — the nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission — comprised of national civic leaders committed to maximizing voter education.
Open Debates is also taking legal action to reform the debate process. In April of 2004, Open Debates filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in an attempt to revoke the tax status of the Commission on Presidential Debates. "The CPD violates Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids such organizations from participating or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate for public office. Instead of engaging in nonpartisan voter education, the CPD executes the joint demands of the Republican and Democratic nominees concerning the presidential debates, and shields the Republican and Democratic nominees from public accountability," said Open Debates Director Farah. As yet, no action has been taken on this complaint.
In August, Open Debates joined 10 other groups groups — the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, The Center for Voting and Democracy, Common Cause, Democracy Matters, Democracy South, Judicial Watch, the National Voting Rights Institute, Public Campaign, Rock the Vote, and the Southern Voting Rights Project — tojointly released a report today titled "Deterring Democracy: How the Commission on Presidential Debates Undermines Democracy." The report was released in the wake of the August 12th U.S. District Court ruling ordering a Federal Election Commission investigation of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Pressure by Open Debates and other groups has led to some significant changes in the 2004 debates. For the first time in 16 years, the contract drafted by the Republican and Democratic campaigns — the 2004 Memorandum of Understanding — has been made public. Now, the general public and the media can hold the candidates accountable for the debates they have designed. Also, for the first time in 12 years, there will be more than just one moderator asking the questions. The candidates have accepted four different moderators for the four debates (three presidential, one vice-presidential). Each of the moderators was proposed by The Commission on Presidential Debates.
* Read Deterring Democracy: How the Commission on Presidential Debates Undermines Democracy (PDF)
* Read the 2004 Memorandum of Understanding (PDF)
* Read the IRS complaint filed by Open Debates
Debate Watching Tips
Long-time political campaign researcher Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and author of EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT POLITICS...AND WHY YOU'RE WRONG offers some tips for smart campaign watching. Jamieson and other campaign watchers fear that Americans feel there is nothing new to be learned from debates. However, most studies show that viewers' knowledge of a candidate and his or her issue platform improves after watching a debate.
Jamieson also suggests that viewers be wary of the poll results released by the networks immediately after the debate ends. Instead of reflecting the opinions of everyone who watched the debates, the results come from samples weighted to reflect the predebate standings in the polls. Jamieson notes that since watching long events like debates tends to reinforce existing dispositions, what this really means is that whomever is ahead in the polls before the debate is likely to come out the winner in the post-debate poll as well.
The History of Televised Debates
From Bill Moyers' NOW
Although there were nationally televised debates during primaries in 1952 and 1956, the first televised general election debate was between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. The debate came about because both candidates saw the advantage to using television, because networks were eager to prove how civic-minded they could be, and because debates were seen as part of a larger campaign reform movement.
Also, for that year only, Congress suspended the equal time provision of the Communications Act of 1934, which stated that a broadcasting station permitting a candidate use of its facilities had to grant the same opportunity to all other candidates, minor ones included.
The next several elections went by without any presidential debates, in part because the 1934 Communications Act was still in effect, and networks were reluctant to turn over air time to minor candidates. In 1970, Congress passed a repeal of the equal time provision, but Nixon vetoed the bill. Then two years later, the Senate again attempted to repeal the equal time provision but was deterred by the House because the bill would have included congressional campaigns. This was an unpopular prospect among House members who wanted to avoiding debating their challengers.
In 1975, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created a loophole so broadcast networks could get around the equal time provision. It ruled that as long as debates were "bona fide news events" sponsored by some organization other than the networks, they would be exempt from equal time requirements.
The second televised debate pitted President Gerald Ford against Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976. This debate is remembered for a remark by Ford that was played up by the press as a major blunder; Carter benefited when Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."
The 1976, 1980, and 1984 debates were sponsored by the non-partisan League of Women Voters. The League worked on behalf of the public by openly pushing for lively debate formats and the inclusion of third-party and independent candidates.
When, in 1980, President Carter refused to participate in a debate that included both Republican challenger Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson, the League insisted on Anderson's inclusion and proceeded to hold a televised Reagan-Anderson debate without Carter. Ronald Reagan was able to use the first debate to outline his agenda to a national audience, and many believe he could not have won the presidency without the debates.
In 1984, the three debates featured a moderator and three panelists who would ask both candidates the same questions. The Reagan and Mondale campaigns asked for an unprecedented degree of control over the debates — going so far as to veto nearly a hundred proposed panelists. The League of Women Voters blasted both campaigns publicly, and for the second debate that year, the candidates didn't reject a single panelist.
The '84 debates were notable for another, more memorable reason. This was the election in which President Reagan, then 73 and potentially deemed too old by some voters for re-election, brought down the house by saying, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." From that moment on, his age was never an issue in the campaign.
In 1988, the political parties wanted more control over the debates while the League insisted on protecting what they considered to be the debates' integrity. The Democratic and Republican parties signed a secretly negotiated "memorandum of understanding" that dictated everything from selection of the panelists, to the makeup of the audience, to banning follow-up questions. When they had agreed on all the details, the campaigns presented the document to the League. Accusing the two major parties of perpetrating a "fraud on the American voter," the League exposed the secret memo to the public. The struggle ended with the League of Women Voters withdrawing as sponsor of the general election debates, refusing to give its name to an event "controlled and scripted by the candidates' campaign organizations." The result: the parties got the kind of debates they wanted when the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a nonprofit organization created by members of both major parties took over the management of the debates.
In 1992, independent candidate H. Ross Perot was invited to join in the presidential debates. While George Farah comments that "Perot was universally considered the winner of two [out of three] presidential debates," Bill Clinton eased comfortably into the new "town hall" format in which "ordinary citizens" asked the questions. Clinton was skilled at empathizing with audience concern over economy and health care, and went on to win the presidency. But Perot climbed from 7% in pre-debate polls to 19% on Election Day, the "largest demonstrable gain for any candidate in the history of presidential debates." Perhaps as a result of Perot's strong showing in the 1992 debates, he was excluded when he ran again in 1996.
In 2000, the CPD announced a high threshold, 15% in pre-debate polling, for third-party and independent candidate participation. Even though five third-party candidates were on enough state ballots to win an electoral college majority, they were all excluded from the debates.
September 30, 2004
Pass the Remote
Presidential Debates? I Call It Bunk
By JOSHUA FRANK
Who are we kidding? America pretends that Thursday's official Presidential foreign policy debate is the apex of US democracy in action (more like democracy inaction). Few expect to gather new information from the scripted theatrics. No real alternative will be offered to counter the Bush agenda. God forbid. Kerry will simply scoff at Bush,s mismanaging of the war in Iraq, and Dubya will respond by pointing out Kerry's flip-flopping of the issue. Show over.
It won't be much fun. Ralph Nader, of course, will not be allowed to participate in the evening's events. Not only have the two-parties done their part in muting Nader's candidacy, the Democrats have also done a bang-up job of keeping Ralph off the ballot in many states. Nice going guys. High-fives all around. Indeed, this is what democracy looks like in the US: two Skull and Bones blood brothers from Yale battling it out for the right to run the American Empire. There is no room for choice, that,s how they want it. Pass the pretzels; it's gag time.
There may be some inadvertent benefits to Nader being refused ballot access, however: Democrats, unlike 2000, won,t be able to wrongly accuse anyone else of spoiling Kerry's wasted bid. They will have done it all by themselves. How many loses does it take for the Dems to learn that the DLC's conduit is the wrong one traverse? You can bet Howard Dean, waiting in the wing, is secretly licking his chops in hopes Kerry loses by a large electoral margin. He wants to take back the Party from the thieves that stole it, and the only way to do so is by having Kerry go down in flames. Burn baby burn.
Meanwhile, the Green Party is hobbling along quite nicely. David Cobb, the stealth Green candidate from Texas, is accomplishing exactly what he set out to do. Which is absolutely nothing. Oh wait, he's building the Green Party. I forgot. What a force they will be! You see, you make an impact by debating the other no-name third party candidates on CSPAN, racking up your .005% vote total, and calling it a huge win for your team. It's like the peasants fighting amongst themselves while the royalists continue to exploit the common good: you invariably grow in size, but make no impact on your own lot in life, let alone elections. Call it compliant rebellion.
So do the debates between Bush and Kerry really mean anything? This is the biggest election of our lifetimes, or so they say. Is it? Sure there are differences between the two candidates, but it only matters on how one weighs the similarities. Abortion? Sure there is a disparity, although the threat is inflated by the Democrats in order to steer pro-choice voters away from Naderland. Death penalty? Not a big difference. Heath-care? Well, they want us to believe there is, but it is subtle. Trade? Not a difference worth mentioning. Israel? Kerry may be more hard-lined then Bush on that. Environment? Only rhetorically. The Democrats have done their fair share of contributing to the Bush rampage. War? Nope. Civil liberties? Not that either. The list goes on.
Sadly, this is what American politics has become: debating minute variations between two corporate candidates on network TV. They call it primetime. I call it bunk. Pass the remote.
Joshua Frank, a contributor to CounterPunch's forthcoming book, A Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, is putting the finishing touches on Left Out: How Liberals did Bush's Work for Him, to be published by Common Courage Press. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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