Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The 2008 Presidential Debates, Brought to You By the CPD (?)

As most readers must surely be aware of by now, we are entering the debate period of the 2008 Presidential General Election. The first event will be held on Friday evening at Ole Miss, September 26th, moderated by Jim Lehrer, and broadcast on PBS affiliates. The remaining presidential debates are on October 7th (Tom Brokaw, Nashville, NBC), and October 15th (Bob Schieffer, Hofstra, CBS). The VP showdown, which could possibly garner a larger viewership due to the immense hype surrounding Sarah Palin, will be on October 2 at Washington University in St. Louis, and hosted by PBS' Gwen Ifill. For a short time (at least) the candidates will hunker down and bone up on the issues.

Given the contentious nature of these campaigns so far, it comes as no surprise that the terms and conditions of the debates are controversial. It's notable (of course) that only the nominees from the two major political parties have been invited to participate in these events. There will be no spoiler candidate in 2008. I find this particularly disconcerting because the two-party system makes our political dialog simplistic, and adds to the impression that every position must be framed in black-and-white terms. This type of "you are either with us or against us"-style of politics is more appropriate for an audience of 13-year olds than a purportedly "sophisticated" electorate. Pehaps one day we will see the rise of a viable third party.

Anyway, it is fascinating to study the arguments and negotiations that occur before the major players even take to the stage. Did you know that a "bipartisan" organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) ultimately makes the important decisions regarding the debates? The CPD is apparently a non-profit, 501(c)(3) entity as defined by Federal US tax laws, funded entirely by corporate contributions. The organization is headed by Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, former heads of the Republican and Democratic National Commitees, respectively. It was founded in 1987, and has only regulated debates since the 1988 presidential race between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.

Right from its inception, the CPD generated criticism. In 1988, the League of Women Voters was the first to voice its objections. That association notably charged that "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter." It may not be surprising that the League of Women Voters was offended by what they saw as a power-grab by the Republican and Democratic parties. Indeed the LWV had served the crucial moderating role in the presidential debates of 1976, 1980, and 1984. They were usurped by the major parties, who colluded to involve corporate contributions (soft money) in the sponsorship of the event. After the CPD takeover, corporations realized they could curry favor with both parties by donating funds.

Indeed the CPD is heavily influenced by the private sector today. According to the Open Debates website, "many board members of the CPD have close ties to multinational corporations; Frank Fahrenkopf is the nation's leading gambling industry lobbyist, and Paul Kirk lobbies for pharmaceutical companies." In the meantime, the two major parties resolve any issues involving the participation of third-party candidates behind closed doors. The CPD has no hard-and-fast rules either. In 2000, Ralph Nadar sued the CPD for arbitrarily requiring any participant to show at least 15% support across five national polls. If this is a concern for you (as it is for me) please support the initiatives of ReclaimDemocracy.org, a site working to replace the CPD with the Citizen's Debate Commission.

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Blogger ryanshaunkelly said...

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Open the damn debates!
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5:11 PM  

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