Issue ExclusionThe presidential debates could force candidates to address important national issues. Unfortunately, because the major party candidates control the debate process, they do not. Issues that are important to the American people are often excluded from the presidential debates.
Under CPD sponsorship, fewer and fewer issues have dominated debate conversation. In 1976, the majority of debate discourse focused on eight issues, but in 2000, the majority of discourse focused on only five issues.
And what are these dominant issues? With the exception of the 1992 debates, which included Perot, presidential debate content has increasingly consisted of issues targeted toward specific voting populations in swing states.
In 2000, during the first and third presidential debates, only five topics constituted the majority of conversation: education, tax cuts, leadership experience, prescription drugs under Medicare, and social security reform. Almost 20 percent of the two debates were devoted to prescription drugs under Medicare and social security - topics that resonate primarily with seniors. Ten percent of the debates was spent describing, in excruciating detail, exactly how each candidate would provide cheaper prescription drugs to senior citizens. With less to argue over, the candidates spoke to senior citizens in Florida who could make an electoral difference.
What about campaign finance reform? What about corporate crime? What about government waste? What about environmental devastation? What about affirmative action? What about abortion? What about child poverty and homelessness? What about labor and unemployment? What about free trade and globalization? What about the reconstruction of urban areas? What about media concentration? What about military spending? What about immigration? What about rural America and family farms? What about renewable energy? What about family values and the commercialization of childhood? What about civil liberties and privacy rights? These topics were either ignored or discussed less frequently than in the past, subordinated to battles over five issues. Jeff Milchen, Executive Director of Reclaim Democracy, wrote:
In a country where corporations are the dominant political and economic force, why did three debates pass without the word "corporation" being spoken? The World Trade Organization, "free trade," and labor also were omitted. How can so many issues of vital interest to Americans freely be ignored while Slobodan Milosevic is cited 17 times? Answer: because the two dominant parties own and operate the debates.
Moreover, candidates have increasingly agreed about the few issues they discuss. The rate of agreement between the candidates during the debates has skyrocketed from 11.54 percent in 1988 to an astounding 37.30 percent in 2000.
The CPD cannot be held principally responsible for the narrowing of debate discourse. Two broad political shifts have taken place within the two-party system over the last 25 years - a convergence toward the ideological "center" and a convergence toward money. The Republican and Democratic parties have increasingly focused on winning over centrist voters, and major party candidates regularly attend massive fundraisers hosted by powerful business interests.
The CPD, however, is directly responsible for two debate-numbing procedures: 1) excluding popular third party candidates and 2) awarding major party candidates absolute control over format.
Third-party candidates let on stage have significantly enhanced debate quality at no cost. In 1992, for example, Perot created disagreement over almost every topic. He pushed discussion of the federal deficit, the hazardous influence of special interests, and the loss of manufacturing jobs due to trade agreements onto center stage. (Not coincidentally, in the ensuing years, Bill Clinton balanced the budget, and George W. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.)
Challenging formats force candidates to deviate from their scripts and discuss difficult issues. Aggressive moderators, follow-up questions, longer response times, candidate-to-candidate questioning, and authentic town-hall formats would produce more subtantive debates that address more issues of concern to the American people.