Our brain-dead political establishment
is about to put up the fight of its life to make sure that
Octobers 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.
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.
its blue-ribbon-sounding name, the CPDinvariably 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
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.
for the commission comes not just from corporations. There
are also the rich foundations. One of the commissions
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. AnguloOpening
Salvos: Who Should Participate in Presidential Debates?that
formed the basis of the commissions debate recommendations.
is understandable that the political parties want to stifle
competition. They have been doing this for yearswith
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?
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.
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.