Saturday, March 31, 2007

Open Debates

No discussion of the presidential debates sham would be complete without mentioning Open Debates (, an organization headed by George Farah. Farah is an energetic, well-informed, articulate attorney (I think) who has been nothing but a thorn in the side of the CPD for years.

Starting in 2003, Farah has used a multi-pronged approach to expose and attack the CPD debate monopoly. He's appeared on many radio and TV news programs and he's sued the CPD for greater openness in their agreements between the Dem/Repub campaign organizations. He's been marginally successful in the federal courts due to the obvious (but unoriginalist) support of parties by the judiciary. And in the "court of public opinion," he's had much more success as, according to his web site, "citizens, academic, civic leaders, commentators, and newspaper editorial boards across the nation expressed outrage at direct candidate manipulation."

What Open Debates discovered is that previously secret agreements between the Dems and Repubs campaigns have santitized the debate formats in such a way as to stifle any real discussion of issues.

Pre-1988 campaigns began abusing the previous hosts of the debates, the League of Women Voters. The League invited Independent candidate, John Anderson, to the debates in 1980 against the wishes of President Jimmy Carter. The 1984 Dem/Repub campaigns "vetoed 68 proposed panelists in order to eliminate difficult questions," causing the League to publicly proclaim the major parties were "totally abusing the process."

In 1988, Bush-Dukakis dictated the debate format through a secret contract that the League would not accept. "The demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter," wrote the League as it bowed out of the process.

The CPD, an arm of the DNC and RNC, took over the debates, ensuring efforts to exclude third-party and Independent voices, shielding candidates from criticism about debate formats, and helping to perpetuate the control of government by the two major parties. That is their true purpose.

What has the CPD wrought? For instance ...

  • In 1996, Ross Perot was excluded from the debates despite having received $29 million in taxpayer money and even though 75% of eligible voters wanted the little man in the debates. Ralph Nader got the same treatment despite overwhelming support for his inclusion in the debates.
  • Followup questions were prohibited.
  • Two of the Clinton-Dole debates "were deliberately scheduled opposite the World Series," an obvious attempt to reduce viewership. The incumbent, Clinton, demanded these restrictions because he was leading in the polls.
  • Response times are severely limited.
  • Screening occurs of town hall format participants.
  • The campaigns choose panelists and moderators.
As Open Debates notes, "The result is a series of glorified news conferences, with the candidates superficially glazing over the issues while reciting memorized sound-bites to fit 90-second response slots."

"It's too much show business and too much prompting, too much artificiality, and not really debates. They're rehearsed appearances."
-- Former President George Bush

Why would the parties place such restrictions on the debates? Fundamentally, because they are not interested in informing the American electorate. The least amount said, the more uninformative and image-centric the campaign ads and rally photo ops, the better.

Compare that to European campaigns which are shorter and more informative. I'm no big fan of the French government, but have you ever watched the grilling of French presidential candidates by the media? Question, followup, followup, followup ... There is no escaping any issue and providing a full explanation of your position. The same with British campaigns and debates.

Open Debates has offered an alternative to the CPD -- an independent Citizens' Debate Commission. It deserves our support.

As their web site states, "The Citizens' Debate Commission consists of national civic leaders from the left, center and right of the political spectrum who are committed to maximizing voter education. Following in the footsteps of the League of Women Voters, the Citizens' Debate Commission will operate with full transparency, employ challenging formats, include popular independent candidates and sponsor presidential debates that serve the American people first."

Please go to their web site and offer your support.

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