"He is, right now, the free and fairly elected President of Haiti."...,
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tax me if you can...,
ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates?:
It's a bizarre experience when you figure its an example of what political debate looked like little more than a century ago, an exceptional example, but some things that might strike the modern reader as particularly strange: candidates actually talked about policy and gave straight answers with respect to real issues; candidates could actually be elevated to national prominence due to their ability to express coherent and detailed views on politics; candidates actually responded to one another. Candidates, in short, actual debated. A now bizarre exercise in democracy in what was a far less democratic nation.
Watching George Farah of opendebates.org this morning on C-SPAN helped explain what happened: in the space of 15 minutes he totally revised the entire history of the 90s election debates as they are generally explained. Standard mythology, for instance, describes in 1992 an upstart billionaire Ross Perot splitting the conservative vote and losing the election for George Bush, putting Bill Clinton into office, and that the debate commission - a neutral party that established the rules for the televised debates - undermined the two-party process by airing the views of a loony, big-eared protectionist armed with a neverending supply of colorful charts. Not so much so.
According to Farah - who has acquired internal documents from the debate commission, the "Memoranda of Understanding" between campaigns - Ross Perot was actually the leading candidate before he first dropped out of the election, and when he dropped out Bill Clinton's poll numbers went up 14 points while Poppy Bush suffered a meager 3 point gain. When Ross Perot came back into the process with a sliver of his old support at 8 points, the documents from debate agreements show that Poppy Bush's campaign was the one that actually insisted that Perot be included in the debates. This is surprisingly because it's generally accepted - including by me - that Perot took that election from Bush. Turns out Bush signed his own death warrant.
In 1996, however, Dole's campaign was insisting that Perot be left out of the debates. Because of this the Clinton administration held all the aces in determining the parameters for the debate. One among many of the Clintons' demands was that the two debates be scheduled against major league baseball games to minimize the viewing audience - a tactic that happens to have been extremely successful.
What is revealing here is not the political games, but rather that the political games are not the result of decisions made by professional media organizations attempting to create a debate format for professional reasons: its the Republican and Democratic campaigns creating a debate format to serve political interests. They have absolute control over the entire debate process that is created through the Commission on Presidential Debates that has organized and controlled every presidential debate since 1988: supposedly an "organization, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan corporation".
In brief, this "nonprofit, nonpartisan" commission is controlled by partisan lobbiests for major corporate interests. Just to rub this fact in the face of the electorate its bipartisan co-chairmanship, Frank J. Fahrenkopf and Paul G. Kirk Jrs, are registered lobbiests, one for a giganticorp pharmeceutical, the other for the American Gambling Association. The Memorandum of Understanding written each election cycle is in fact written without interference from the CPD, which only exists to place the control of the debates into the hands of the two parties, who wheel and deal behind closed doors and with no public, partisan, bipartisan, or non-partisan oversight at all.
Lest there be a misunderstanding, this isn't just about keeping troublesome third party tickets out of the debates (or putting them in when it helps a party politically), but keeping troublesome political issues out of the debates, and, in the end, keeping troublesome political debate out of the debates. Successive presidential contenders have established hardcoded rules in the debates where it is against the rules for presidential candidates to talk to one another, they determine the camera angles, the topics and questions, the celebrity media reps, the fundemental nature of what has in reality become nothing more than a glorified bipartisan press conference.
This was obvious to anybody who bothered to watch the damn things, but its been blamed on everybody but the candidates themselves. Well, no more. Now we know that the presidential contenders are just plain, ordinary chickenshits, which might explain why the last two presidents have been draft-dodgers.
After Farah got off his stump the president of Greenpeace made a brief endorsement speech, followed successively by the founding president of the Heritage Foundation. Apparently there's reason to believe that there's still something upon which everybody can agree. Here I thought there was just a growing agreement that they agreed on nothing. I'm wrong, and that's good, audience participation is expected.
The nonpartisan LWV served the public interest well, and it's precisely because the LWV served the public interest so well that the CPD was created. The major parties didn't want a debate sponsor to include popular third party candidates and employ challenging formats. The major parties wanted presidential debates under their control.