Regardless of what you thought of the first round of 2012 presidential debates, the spin job began well before 8:30 pm last Wednesday. If you opened up the New York Times Op-Ed page Wednesday morning, you might have found yourself gently lulled into believing all was good with the presidential debate world. Newton Minow, the former head of the Federal Communications Commission, and on the current board of the “non-profit” Presidential Debate Commission, assured us seductively—in true NYT statesman fashion–that the debates were the only thing left of what was good in the current round of politics. Sure, Minow conceded, there was a little kerfuffle back in the 1980 debates when the League of Women Voters objected to the collusion between James Baker III and Robert S. Strauss to control the format of the debates, and withdrew its sponsorship.“Critics have sometimes charged that the debates, and their format and substance, are controlled by the two major parties and campaigns. This was once true.”
But since then, the debates have been on track. After all, Minow assures us, he’s been on the “bipartisan non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates since 1987,” and he’s been zealously guarding the debates—mind you, they resisted a collusion between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, which attempted to “force [them] to accept a 32 page ‘memorandum of understanding’ setting out debate details,” but luckily Minow and his esteemed statesmen colleagues refused and Kerry and Bush backed right back down.
Compare this story with the one told by George Farah, the founder of Open Debate and the author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. Farah’s version is a little different from Minow’s, which is why, I suspect, he interviewed with Amy Goodman rather than finding himself on the Op-Ed pages of the NYT.
Farah explains in more detail than does Minow the exact conflict of interest that lead to the break-up between the presidential candidates and the League of Women Voters: Farah’s version includes that fact that Walter Mondale AND Ronald Reagan “vetoed 80 of the moderators that the League of Women Voters had” suggested, leading to the ultimate breakup between the candidates and the civic organization. Farah also points to the collusion between the Democratic and Republican candidates in 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2004 to exclude third party candidates. Only in 1992, when Ross Perot ran as an independent, was he allowed to join the presidential debates—and that was because George Bush Senior thought it would help him pull away votes from the Democrats. He was wrong. An interesting fact to ponder for naysayers who insist that third party politics can never work. Further confirmation? All candidates fought to exclude Perot from the 1996 debates.
Further, for anyone who wonders why third party politics, which seem so reasonable, are such an impossibility, Farah’s interview with Goodman provides some answers: contrary to Minow’s narrative, the “Commission on Presidential Debates,” despite its name, is neither a governmental organization nor a non-profit. Rather, it is a private corporation sponsored by Anheuser-Bush and other companies. The move away from civic sponsors such as League of Women Voters, which organized it on a shoestring ($5k) budget, enables the CPD to engage in a series of nefarious collusions: private contracts that determine the exclusion of 3rd party candidates, to refuse to allow any serious questions to be asked, to include select audiences that would cheer for the candidates. Of course, CPD had bipartisan chairs: Frank Farendkopf and Paul Kird, the former heads of the Republicans and Democrats respectively. Bipartisanship—rather than evoking neutrality—suddenly takes on a new meaning: they worked together to exclude the possibility of third parties.
Even more astonishing was the response that Farah got when he asked Fahrenkopf how he felt about having “beer and tobacco companies [pay] for the most important election”: Fahrenkopf’s response? “Boy, you’re talking to the wrong guy. I represent the gambling industry.”
Farah, according to his own self-description, has spearheaded a campaign to divest the CPD from its affilations with various private corporations, including Philips Electronics and BBH, on the grounds that the encumbrance of corporations was “fundamentally anti-democratic.” But there remain seven other corporations, including Southwest Airlines, the International Bottled Water Association, several law firms and others who are still sponsoring the CPD. Let’s be clear: None of these corporations are non-partisan.
The history of the CPD in 1996 gets even more nefarious. Says Farah:Bob Dole was desperate to keep Perot out of the presidential debates because he thought Perot would take more votes away from him. Bill Clinton did not want anyone to watch the debates. He wanted what George Stephanopoulos told me was a non event because he was comfortably leading in the polls. So they reached an outrageous agreement: Bill Clinton agreed to exclude Perot on the condition that one of the three debates was canceled, and the remaining two debates were scheduled opposite the World Series of baseball, and no follow-up questions were asked.They got not Perot, they got two debates at the same time as baseball and they had no follow up questions, and that’s exactly what President Bill Clinton wanted, by design, the lowest debate audience in the history of presidential debates. Who took the heat? Not the candidates. The candidates never paid a political price. The polls after the debate showed 50% of the public blamed the commission. Only 13% blamed President Clinton, and only 5% blamed the Bob Dole.
So the impression the public received was to blame the commission -not entirely inaccurately, Notice also the rightward turn, which began at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term and kept going. But the FCC, which apparently criticized the CPD in 1992 and 1996, dealt them some forces to be reckoned with: so the CPD changed some of the rules under pressure. They decided to invite third-party candidates who had 15% percent of the vote to come and debate with them. In other words, a complete impossibility, as Farah points out. Even Congressional funding of candidates requires winning only 5% of the popular vote.
Clearly, collusion is the proper term to describe what the two presidential parties have done to manage the election framework: they have gotten together and figured out how limit the terms of entry, to limit the number of speakers, the content of the questions, and to tame/discipline anyone who manages to get out of line.
So, what does this anecdote tell us? The reason “3rd parties never work” is not because God decrees it as such. In fact, third and fourth and fifth parties and their candidates, far from being impossible to sustain in the American voting system, are in fact so easy to sustain that the two major presidential organizations are fearful of them and will stop at very little to prevent them from joining the debates. The message to us should be that the ability to force the conversation to become more expansive, more diverse, more inclusive is much less difficult than we might have imagined. The only thing that third parties make impossible is for the conversation to remain the same: they can force the conservatives and the neo-cons to listen to voters, to insist on the inclusion of awkward and difficult issues, and to require answers from the behemoths, even if it’s just in the short term.
But for these possibilities, we need to stop paying homage to “tradition,” and the trite line that “3rd parties have never worked”—and ask WHY that’s the case. We need to stop allowing elder statesmen like Minow to seduce us into the George and June Cleaver view that American politics is based on a nice, fair, innocuous playing field. The truth is far from it, as far in fact, as the NYT is…and is more likely to be found across town at sites like Democracy Now.