Lies and Deception
If the Republican and Democratic parties wanted to control the debates, they could simply sponsor the debates themselves. They could hold debates in their candidates' own living rooms, exclude all third party challengers and employ dreary formats. Nobody can stop them from exercising that First Amendment right, and the networks would surely broadcast their debates. The press would cover the debates, and many voters would watch them.
So why in the world do the major
party candidates use the CPD?
Such transparency would force the major-party candidates to reconcile the benefits of third-party exclusion and format manipulation with the desire to appear democratic, which, in of itself, would improve the debates. Frank Donatelli, debate negotiator for Dole, said, "Believe me, politicians are risk averse, the parties are risk averse. The last thing they're gonna want to do is to alienate a substantial segment of the public by being perceived as the person that kept out a legitimate candidate who could be president." The debate over debates would become a unique voter education tool -- we would learn to what extent major party candidates value their political ambitions over the democratic process. In 2002, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, advocated such a transparent debate process:
I'd put the burden on the candidates. If the last two presidential candidates for the two major parties had to say publicly, "No, I won't debate you," then they would have borne whatever political cost came. The point is that the diversity and the debate ought to be up to the candidates you are going to hold accountable by giving them your vote, and not by some kind of screening mechanism, however its rigged, because that screening mechanism then becomes an excuse for the political leaders to not have to be accountable.
The CPD is a vehicle for major party candidates to avoid accountability. Under the existing sponsorship regime, the CPD is blamed for the debates' flaws, not the major party candidates. By posing as an independent sponsor, the CPD shields the major party candidates from public criticism. The Dole campaign, for example, excluded Perot in 1996 without suffering a severe public backlash. "We were able to hide behind the commission," said Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager. Indeed, a September 23, 1996 Hotline poll found that only 5 percent of eligible voters held the Clinton campaign responsible for Perot's exclusion; only 13 percent blamed the Dole campaign; and over 50 percent blamed the CPD.
Alan Keyes, former Republican presidential candidate, explained:
What's happening in these debates is that, they are standing up and saying, "Here are the nonpartisan debates, at which we are presenting the serious candidates for president on a nonpartisan basis so that we can educate the people of this country in a fair fashion." If you are going to present a partisan brawl, in which you have excluded anybody but your chosen few, I would say just do it. You have the right to do it. It's a free country. Don't pretend, however, to do it under a rubric of nonpartisanship. Don't pretend to do it in a fashion that then uses monies that are supposed only to be used for nonpartisan purposes. That's cheating. That's corruption. That's lying. That's an effort to manipulate the perception of the voters in order to favor your power.