The Commission on Presidential Debates and Debate Reform
The Presidential debate is a central component of American democracy. Many Americans consider debates to be as much a part of the political process as voting and campaigning. Thus, when looking at democratic institutions that should be reformed to better serve American citizens, the presidential debate structure should be near the top of the list.
Presidential debates have been some of the most memorable and influential political events of the last 50 years. The first televised debate, the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate remains etched in many peopleıs memory. More recently, voters remember such characters as the ever-feisty Ross Perot, the meandering Dan Quayle, and the Frankensteinian Al Gore. Debates have become important historical events in and of themselves, as well as symbols of the political climate of the time. The issues discussed at debates tend to highlight the important issues in national politics from the missile gap to Social Security. Politicians also get a shot at cultural immortality by giving a memorable speech or delivering a stinging one-liner.
A Forum for Discussion
Debates are often the best chance for citizens to take a good look at candidates and see how they measure up. Even though the electoral process currently drags on for well over a year, presidential debates give voters who havenıt been paying much attention the opportunity to find out where candidates stand on the issues. More importantly, debates package the candidates in a short TV-based forum nestled between prime time viewing slots. Watching a presidential debate is one of the easiest and accessible ways to participate in the democratic process.
For all these reasons, who participates in the presidential debates can have a big impact on the topics discussed and the larger political landscape. Since many voters rely on the debates as a key source of information, it would be in the interest of democracy to include a reasonably wide range of viewpoints. Sometimes the simple inclusion or exclusion of a candidate can make or break their chances. In 1996, Jesse Ventura used debates to boost his candidacy by reaching out to those on the political sidelines.
The Current Situation
As the 2000 Presidential debates loom on the horizon, who will be allowed to participate in this yearıs debates is becoming an important political issue. While George W. Bush and Al Gore will undoubtedly face off in the fall, it is still uncertain which, if any, third party candidates will be included. Critics of including other candidates claim that allowing one or more third candidates would confuse voters and that no third party candidate has a realistic shot at getting elected anyway.
The American people, however, donıt seem to see it this way. A recent poll by Harvard Universityıs Vanishing Voter project found that about 50 percent would like to see an active campaign by a third party candidate in this yearıs race. A Zogby poll shows that a majority would like to see Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in the 2000 debates. Moreover, a full one third of Americans describe themselves as independents with no particular party affiliation. A third-party alternative might speak to some of those voters and could arouse interest in the millions of Americans who donıt vote at all.
Whatıs holding up the inclusion of third party candidates and debate reform in general is the entrenched two-party system, in this case, manifested in the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the entity charged with setting up Presidential debates. To be included in this yearıs Presidential debates, the CPD says that a candidate must have an average of 15% support from five national polls. Bush and Gore already meet this standard, but it effectively prohibits others from joining the fray. This standard is particularly high since a candidate only needs five percent of the vote to qualify for public campaign financing and, in many other democracies, five percent of the vote gets you into the Parliament. The CPD even kept Ross Perot out of the 1996 debates despite the fact that he had received 19% of the popular vote in 1992.
The CPD has neither any mandate nor any incentives to be fair. It was founded in 1987 by the heads of the Republican and Democratic parties with the stated purpose of setting up "nationally televised joint appearances conducted between the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the two major political parties.''
Moreover, the CPD, like most candidates, has gotten itself into the habit of taking large contributions from big-money donors with vested interests. Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes and owner of KRAFT Foods, sponsored the debates in the last two election cycles. This time around Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budwieser, is sponsoring a debate in St. Louis to the tune of two million dollars.
Despite the obstacles facing third party candidates, some have been able to get their message out and show up significantly in the polls. Ralph Nader, Green Party candidate, is pulling about six percent nationally, putting him in third behind Gore and Bush. In the Western U.S. Naderıs support jumps to about 10%, making him a serious threat to upset the delicate balance of power between Republicans and Democrats in the fall. This level of support is even more striking when one stops to consider that Nader only declared his candidacy two months ago and that he has been virtually ignored by the national media. Pat Buchanan, Reform Party candidate is polling about 4% nationwide and has benefited from more coverage than Nader and previous exposure during failed runs at the Republican Party nomination 1992 and 1996.
Nader and Buchanan are the two third party candidates most likely to have a shot at being included in the 2000 debates. Perhaps a better way to judge public support for both and other candidates would be to ask poll respondents who they would like to see included in debates, not whether they would vote for a certain candidate as the question is currently asked. Voters would undoubtedly have a better idea whether they would vote for a candidate after having seen them in a debate. Moreover, including Nader and Buchanan would open the floodgates of discussion on a number of topics that have been virtually ignored by both major parties. Both Nader and Buchanan could arouse public debate on the subjects of economic globalization and Americaıs place in the world. Nader also consistently raises issues relating to the environment and corporate dominance.
While the rules may not be changed quickly enough to have an effect on this yearıs debates critics are putting forth common sense debate reform in the interest of improving democracy. The Task Force on Fair Debates, chaired by American University constitutional law professor Jamin Raskin, has come out with a report detailing a possible set of inclusion procedures for Presidential debates. The Task Forceıs rules would include any candidate with 5% support in national polls, whose party pulled more than 5% of the votes in the last elections, or that a majority of polled Americans say they want included. This set of requirements would include Nader and Buchanan (if heıs the Reform party nominee) and leave the door open for other candidates to launch a push for inclusion. Leaving the current debate structure unchanged is undermining the legitimacy of the Presidential debate process.
Reform America, Inc. supports the recommendations of the Task Force.
Reform America, Inc. supports efforts to open up the debate process so the widest array of views can be heard. We also support the airing of third party-candidate presidential debates, aired at times and on broadcast stations comparable to the major party debates. RAI further joins the push for a youth sponsored and youth moderated presidential debate, where the candidates will be forced to address the issues of Americaıs young people.
We believe that American democracy can only benefit from the inclusion of third party candidates and ideas. RAI advocates injecting fresh ideas into the political dialogue and spurring young and disaffected people to participate in the political process. We argue that Presidential debate reform is one of the ways to accomplish these goals. The inclusion of third party candidates in this yearıs debates would demonstrate a commitment to a more democratic political process on the part of the CPD.
Please contact us if you have any questions or want more information, and see other ways you can Reform America, through voting system reform, ballot access reform, and e-democracy innovation and experimentation.
This article drew on the following sources:
Arianna Huffington, "The Debates Debate," February 17, 2000, Arianna Online. Available at www.arianna-online.com
Jeff Cohen, "Nader, Buchanan and the Debates," April 16, 2000. FAIR. Available at www.fair.org
The CPD website is: www.debates
Reform America, Inc.