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.

Candidacy for the Average Citizen

Only when competent, average citizens run for office will there be a remote possibility that campaigns and elections will air all of the public's business and all potential solutions. Surely, the party-dominated system and the media won't make it easy. But without the input of Independent citizens, the lesser of evils will continue to be the choice.

As demonstrated by the previously-mentioned southeast Louisiana candidate, Independent nonpartisan voices can bring important ideas to elections. It wasn't easy for him; for instance, many people immediately associated him with the sliminess of the political class. All spare time away from work was devoted to the campaign. The media's resistance and the incumbent's snubs were not easy to take. But nearly 15,000 people voted for him, and who knows how many "disciples" carried his message forward.

To improve our democracy and public policymaking, in general, we must incorporate these Independent voices in the electoral mainstream.
  • Demand the media cover all candidates.
  • Require public debates that include all candidates and provide open-ended discussion formats.
  • Provide for some public funding of campaigns so that those who choose the non-prostitution path can be heard too.
  • Vote out incumbents who don't cooperate.
  • And above all ... Run for office!

Harm: Limiting Debate

Most people don't know it, but presidential debates are controlled by a commission that claims to be "non-partisan" but, in fact, is the brainchild of the former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties (Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, respectively).

The mission of this commission, according to its web site is the following: "The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners. Its primary purpose is to sponsor and produce debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan corporation, sponsored all the presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004."

If it weren't so serious a matter, that mission statement would be the best of jokes.

In 1992, Ross Perot single-handedly carried the issue that has dominated Washington politics since: the budget deficit. Then-candidate Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush ignored that issue during those periods when Perot was out of the race. And when he was in, Perot arguably "won" the debates.

But the CPD learned its lesson. As demonstrated by its exclusion of Perot in 1996 and Ralph Nader and others in subsequent elections, the CPD showed that it will never make the mistake again of including in the debates candidates not under their control.

I'm no Ross Perot fan. He often portrayed complex issues in oversimplified illustrations, and some say he demonstrated a true paranoid streak. But he should have been included in the presidential debates because he brought something to the table that the other candidates had to respond to, putting them on record on the issue.

The CPD applies "pre-established objective" criteria to determine who shall be extended invitations. According to the web site: "The goal of the CPD's debates is to afford the members of the public an opportunity to sharpen their views, in a focused debate format, of those candidates from among whom the next President and Vice President will be selected. The purpose of the (selection) criteria is to identify those candidates who have achieved a level of electoral support such that they realistically are considered to be among the principal rivals for the Presidency."

In other words, it's a horserace whose only purpose is to elect someone to the office. According to the CPD, the purpose of the campaign (which the debates are a part of) is:
  • not to bring a wide swath of issues of interest to the public or
  • not to inform the electorate of all potential solutions to public policy
  • but simply to offer the narrow ideologies of the two main candidates.

And who's to say that a non-party candidate, given the opportunity to air different and compelling views, may not achieve that "level of electoral support" required to win the office? It's called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Remember, before he briefly flaked out of the '92 race, Perot had reached levels of polling support above 40 percent.

The media has culpability in this mess too. New outlets have the duty to help inform the public, but they have bought into the horserace mentality. If a candidate is not considered "viable," they largely ignore him no matter the message, no matter the ideas, no matter the solutions. If you can't win (according to someone's calculation), what's the point of bothering the electorate with this superfluous information?

Well, ask Bill Clinton why he made deficit reduction a primary focus of his presidency. Because the outsider, Ross Perot, forced him to put on record his position on the issue.

In 1996, the Los Angeles Times editorialized that Perot should be included in the debates. But, note its reasoning: "In this campaign, as in 1992, Perot plans to spend millions on taped or carefully edited 'infomercials' that allow him to present, unchallenged, his views on the nation's woes and what he would do to cure them. If he does not participate in the debates, live questioning of Perot may be largely limited to appearances with television's Larry King and other deferential questioners."

So it was Perot's "unchallenged" views that required "live questioning"? What about the views of Clinton and Bob Dole? What about juxtaposing Perot's views against those of major party candidates? Or Nader's views ... or whoever ... ?

What are the media and the political establishment afraid of? The lame anecdotes abound about feeble, weird, abrasive, unattractive "lesser" candidates embarrassing themselves in public. Well, let them make fools of themselves. The process will suffer no injury.

Excluding those candidates, though, might well injure our nation because the precise crystalline answer to the most pressing problem of the day may fall from their lips. And nobody will have heard. So what if the electorate more than likely won't elect them. To coin a phrase, "It's the issues, stupid!"

If we are to be a real representative democracy, the trend must be toward including disparate voices. Remember, the concept of Social Security was co-opted by FDR from the Socialists. Adopting a golden nugget out of a quagmire of dysfunctional political philosophy is not faulty public policy. It does not mean the unattractive candidate with one good idea will be elected.

What it does mean is that one good idea will have a better chance of becoming public policy.

It has become painfully obvious that the Democrats and Republicans don't possess all of the answers to society's needs. In fact, their games-playing often and obviously gets in the way of the public's work. Is it any wonder why more and more citizens everyday are joining the growing numbers of unhappy voters moving to the Independent center?

Isn't our political system supposed to be a marketplace of ideas? Why exclude any candidates, any ideas? In the last century, we let more voters into the process.

Let them hear ... and then choose.

Another Category of Harm

We live in a complicated world. Each public policy issue has many facets, many competing constitutional rights and powers, and many possible solutions. Political parties have narrow points of view. In order to win elections and therefore control public policy, parties attempt to simplify our complex world -- by limiting debate.

Democracy, by definition, cannot allow the limitation of debate. The term "marketplace of ideas" (often used as a synonym for democracy) clearly projects a capacity for the complex and a resistance to limitation.

Two things happen during elections. Yes, people are elected to office, but beforehand, campaigns occur in which the voting public is supposed to be enlightened. The latter is the subject of this post. [NOTE: The following arguments can be applied to legislative debate under party control, but the problem manifests itself better during election seasons.]

Throughout the 20th Century, the trend in U.S. electoral politics was toward greater inclusion. Voting rights for blacks, women and younger citizens; party primaries, to a degree, replacing backroom nominations. In both cases, the general electorate benefited.

But one critical role has remained largely out of the reach of the average citizen: shaping the direction and scope of campaign issues. Why? Because the door to candidacy is barely open to challengers from outside the parties, and more importantly, the door is firmly shut for non-party candidates to have a reasonable chance of being heard.

The preceding five paragraphs cover a lot of ground, so I'll break them into separate topics in coming posts. The question might be asked though: What has been the tangible harm brought by narrowing and limiting the electoral conversation?

I'll cover this in coming posts in greater detail, but for now, one stunning example will suffice:

15 years before Hurricane Katrina, an Independent candidate for U.S. Representative spent 10 months wearing out shoe leather trying to get the attention of the southeast Louisiana electorate. His main issue? A focus on rebuilding the wetlands south and east of New Orleans as a buffer from hurricane storm surge.

The supporting science had been around for decades, but no "viable" candidates (read: Democrat or Republican) had ever championed the issue in previous campaigns. You see, in south Louisiana, both parties are owned by the oil and gas industry and the short-sighted special interest group du jour (oyster fisherman, etc.); so no genuine solution, like freshwater diversion, was ever offered.

How many people died during Katrina or its immediate aftermath? How many people were (still are) displaced from their homes? How many billions of dollars in damage?

Harm? Yes, it can all be brought to the doorstep of the two-party system.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America

de Tocqueville noted, "... men can never live in society without embarking in some common undertakings ..." But he also wrote:

"[Americans] are less reluctant, however, to join political associations, which appear to them to be without danger because they risk no money in them. But they cannot belong to these associations for any length of time without finding out how order is maintained among a large number of men and by what contrivance they are made to advance, harmoniously and methodically, to the same object." (my emphasis)

The purpose of this web site is not to suggest the abolition of political parties. As de Tocqueville (and the Founders) observed, people will always tend to associate for "some common undertakings." This is natural and important to any form of democracy. It is ensconced in the concept of the people being able to petition their government for redress of grievances. When they speak with a collective, loud voice, they can be heard.

But as de Tocqueville asserted, members of an association of enough size to be heard should take note of the apparent necessity that "order [be] maintained." In other words, leaders begin to control the direction and message of the association; otherwise, it is argued, mayhem will ensue. So soon, a member of the association finds himself between the proverbial rock and hard place, because in leaving the association, he loses power; in staying, he loses control of his message.

Additionally, the association member must decide whether he wishes to dirty his hands in the "contrivance[s]" parties engage in "to advance, harmoniously and methodically, to the same object."

Which all leads us back to Madison and the Federalist #10 arguments for controlling factions. Yes, they are natural. And yes, they will lead to contrivances for getting their way in public policy. But, should they be allowed to control elections and government function? No.

Association is guaranteed by the constitution. But nowhere in that document or any other from the Founders can it be found any suggestion that those associations be allowed to control our government. In fact, an honest reading of the Founders clearly notes that those associations should be maintained at arm's length from the reigns of power.

Otherwise, tyranny of the majority is to follow ...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What happens when your representative has "leaders" ...

In the first week of November, 1999, (there are more recent examples, I just found this one in my database of party slime) ... Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert named 12 Republicans to a House-Senate conference committee for a health care industry bill. Of the 12 appointees, 10 had voted against the House bill, which was passed against the orders of Hastert and the Republican leadership. One of the remaining two didn't vote on the measure at all.

So of the members sent to conference to supposedly "defend" the House bill (a stronger version than the Senate one), only one Hastert appointee voted for the bill and that did not include either of the bill's authors.

You see, 68 Republicans (only about 30% of the majority party's members) joined with almost all Democrats to pass the House bill. Hastert denies punishment was a part of his actions. But note that soon thereafter, his henchman, Tom DeLay, announced a new leadership policy: If a majority of the majority was not in favor of a bill, it would no longer make it to the floor for a vote.

Some people call this representative democracy. I call it oligarchy.

Ben Franklin ...

"In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns. For the former, therefore, to return among the latter is not to degrade but to promote them."

And I might add, for the latter to aspire to be among the former is the call of ordinary citizenship.

Run for office ... as an Independent.

The rest of you ... vote for them!

Magically, representation will ensue.