Closed to Debate
George Szamuely
New York Press


Our brain-dead political establishment is about to put up the fight of its life to make sure that October’s presidential debates will be as boring and as uninformative as possible. No one but the mediocre nominees of the two major parties will be allowed to take part. The last thing our rulers want is to give voters a chance to choose among the available alternatives.

In January the grandly named Commission on Presidential Debates announced that no candidate will take part in the debates unless he has, first, a mathematical chance of securing an electoral college majority, and second, that he can demonstrate at least 15 percent support in five national polls one week before the debates. The polls would be conducted by five selected organizations: ABC/Washington Post; CBS/New York Times; NBC/Wall Street Journal; CNN/USA Today/Gallup; and Fox News/Opinion Dynamics.

Despite its blue-ribbon-sounding name, the CPD–invariably preceded by the ingratiating adjective "bipartisan"–has no official standing whatsoever. The CPD chairs are Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., former chairman of the Republican Party and prominent gambling industry lobbyist, and Paul G. Kirk Jr., a former chairman of the Democratic Party and also a prominent lobbyist. The commission is divided equally between Republicans and Democrats. No independents have ever been invited to join, even though the Reform Party won 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and receives federal funds.

If you want to stage a debate you have to cough up $550,000. This money goes directly to the CPD. Debates all have corporate sponsors. Soft money contributions to political parties have to be reported to the FEC; debate donations do not. Debates provide corporate CEOs with an excellent opportunity to rub shoulders with presidential candidates and media bigshots. Sponsors of the 1996 debates included Ford Motor Co., J.P. Morgan & Co., Atlantic Richfield, AT&T, the Sara Lee Corp., Philip Morris and Sprint. This year the CPD asked Anheuser-Busch to sponsor all four debates. One, held at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 17, will be sponsored entirely by Anheuser-Busch. Another one, at Winston-Salem, will be sponsored by Philip Morris.

Support for the commission comes not just from corporations. There are also the rich foundations. One of the commission’s funders is the Century Foundation, formerly known as the Twentieth Century Fund. It was a foundation report, written by Clifford M. Sloan, Newton N. Minow and Carlos T. Angulo–Opening Salvos: Who Should Participate in Presidential Debates?–that formed the basis of the commission’s debate recommendations.

It is understandable that the political parties want to stifle competition. They have been doing this for years–with tricks like the absurdly high number of signatures needed to get on a state ballot. As Ralph Nader has said, "In the business world" what the two parties do "would subject them to antitrust prosecution." But why do the tv networks go along with this censorship? The same networks, incidentally, who will carry out the polling to determine who is debate-eligible?

Thus, who gets to debate is decided by a small number of people in the pay of the very corporations whose interests are threatened by a Pat Buchanan or a Ralph Nader. Such people have every incentive to make sure that discordant voices are kept out. In 1996 the CPD ruled that Ross Perot could not take part in the debates. Why? Because the "experts" it consulted said that he had no realistic chance of winning the presidency. "Participation is not extended to candidates because they might prove interesting or entertaining," Paul Kirk explained patronizingly.

Perot’s exclusion was amazing. Here was a man who had won almost a fifth of the popular vote in 1992, had launched a new political party and had taken a prominent part in national debates like the one over NAFTA. Perot sued the commission and lost. In his suit, he argued that the CPD, the Democrats, the Republicans and their financial backers were rigging the system against outsiders.

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Archived Columns by George Szamuely from the New York Press

Closed to Debate

Arrogance of Power

Prison Love

Gore's Oil

Rough Justice

Race Race

Al the Coward

Intruder Alert

McCain's Money

Haider Seek

Out of Africa

Prosecute NATO

Villain or Victim?

Intervention, Immigration, and Internment

Home-Grown Terrorism

Who Benefits?

Laws of Return

Embassy Row

Selling Snake Oil

Chinese Puzzle

That Was No Lady, That Was the Times

The Red Tide Turning?

Pat & The Pod

United Fundamentalist States

Let Them All Have Nukes!

Liar, Liar

Gangster Nations

Puerto Rico Libre – and Good Riddance

Leave China Alone

A World Safe for Kleptocracy

Proud To Be Un-American

All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press

It is outrageous that we take the commission’s self-serving recommendations seriously. The 15-percent hurdle is preposterous. Using such criteria, George Wallace in 1968 would not have been able to take part in the presidential debates, had there been any that year. He only got 13 percent of the vote. Yet he carried five states and went on to dominate political life for the next 25 years.

It would have been hard also in 1984 to justify Walter Mondale debating Ronald Reagan, for he did not have the remotest possibility of winning. Moreover, why shouldn’t the commission’s standards not also hold for the primaries? How dare all those Republican hopefuls presume to share a platform with George W. Bush when he led them by almost 50 points! In many countries, political parties secure important cabinet positions on the basis of as little as 5 percent of the vote. Were they operating in the United States, Germany’s Free Democrats or Greens would long ago have been written off as the loony fringe.

The debates are for the American people–not for the corporations or the monopolistic political parties. Buchanan and Nader should be there. As should the Libertarians. We might then get a debate that will consist of something more than well-rehearsed one-liners, stump speech excerpts and corny homilies.

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