There’s been no lack of commentary over how candidates performed in the last three debates. Barack Obama fell asleep in the first one. A nervous Paul Ryan gulped down five gallons of water in the second. Mitt Romney got slapped down by Candy Crowley for lying about Libya in the third.
What’s lacking so far is any debate about the debates themselves. Yet their very existence raises several important questions: Who sets the rules for the debates? Under what authority? Who pays for them? And why should we have any debates at all?
Most of us would agree that presidential debates are a good idea. After all, if someone’s seeking the most powerful job on the planet, we have a right to see how well they perform on their feet. But why only candidates of the two major parties? Why are no notes allowed? Why no audience applause?
Debates today are controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates. That wasn’t always the case. From 1976 to 1984, the League of Women Voters sponsored presidential debates. But neither the George H.W. Bush nor the Michael Dukakis campaign wanted the League to continue its role. They drafted a joint memo outlawing follow-up questions and specifying who would be allowed to sit in the audience and who would serve as panelists. The LWV refused and dropped their involvement with debates, because “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetuate a fraud on the American voter.”
In 1987, the Republican and Democratic Parties combined forces to create the Commission on Presidential Debates, headed by former Republican Party Chair Frank Fahrenkopf and former Democratic Chair Paul Kirk. Fahrenkopf’s still GOP co-chair today, with former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry representing the Democratic Party. The Commission, funded by corporate and foundation contributions, has overseen every presidential and vice-presidential debate since 1988.
Although an independent organization, the Commission, in effect, is a creature of and works for both major political parties. But, in the end, the Commission, not either party, rules. Party officials set forth their demands. This year, the Obama and Romney campaigns submitted a 21-page memorandum on how they wanted debates to proceed. But the Commission has the final say over how many debates will be held, where, when, on what topics, in what format, for how long, what candidates will be invited, who the moderators will be. Everything but what color tie the candidate must wear.
As with any governing body, the Commission doesn’t always make the right decisions. Their plan to bring Jim Lehrer out of retirement as moderator of the first debate was widely panned ahead of time — and his pitiful performance only proved critics right. And could the Commission not find one person of color as moderator?
Same with their decision to turn this year’s debates into virtual “free-for-all’s,” where the moderator merely tosses out a topic and lets candidates freelance for the next few minutes. As we’ve seen, the result is a cacophony of filibustering, finger-pointing, interrupting, and subject-changing. Only Candy Crowley was able to keep both candidates in line, and she had to break the rules to do so.
There are other, more fundamental questions. What’s with the ban on notes or visual aids? In the real world, no president or CEO makes a major decision without briefing papers. Shouldn’t candidates be allowed to consult their notes? And why a two-minute limit on answers? Real-world problem-solving takes a little longer.
But the biggest issue with today’s debates is that the Commission, as a tool of the two major parties, excludes third-party candidates unless they can score at least 15 percent in national polls — which, Catch 22, is almost impossible unless they appear in debates. So no Ralph Nader in 2000. No Gary Johnson in 2012. Only Ross Perot in 1992 made the cut. Bottom line: the American people are deprived of a full range of choices for president.
Because of the inherent conflict of interest, many states have taken reapportionment out of the hands of political parties. For the same reason, it’s time to end the major parties’ control of presidential debates, put them in the hands of an independent, nonpartisan body, open them up, and revise the ground rules.
That won’t happen overnight. But, in the short term, there is one immediate fix we would all welcome: Simply require candidates to answer the question they are asked.