Open Debates

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Electing the President: A Program for Reform
Final Report of the Commission on National Elections
April 1986
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Georgetown University, Washington, DC

The Commission on National Elections published a complete report on the election process, part of which was dedicated to presidential debates. This study was one of two conducted at that time which recommended the creation of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The following are its official findings on presidential forums.

In the commission's judgement, candidate forums in the pre-nomination period have now become a fact of political life. The process of selecting presidential nominees can be enhanced by using them more rather than less. They can be structured usefully in many ways. Indeed, popular interest can be increased by testing the candidates in a variety of ways.

In the post-nomination period, the commission believes that American citizens have come to expect joint appearances by the major party nominees for the presidency. These joint appearances should be made a permanent part of the electoral process. They are such an important factor that they should not be left to the vagaries and uncertainties of each presidential election but rather, to the extent possible, should be institutionalized.

The commission believes that this institutionalization is most likely to take place if the two political parties assume direct responsibility for sponsoring the joint appearances. although each nominee must ultimately decide whether to take part, the parties are in the strongest position to enlist their participation by attempting to secure commitments before they are nominated. In 1988, for the first time in 20 years, there will be no incumbent president running for reelection, thus offering a unique opportunity for the two parties to state well in advance of the 1988 election their commitment to ensuring that joint television appearances will be held in the general election period of that and subsequent presidential election years.

The commission therefore urges the two parties to assume responsibility for sponsoring and otherwise ensuring that presidential candidate joint appearances are made a permanent and integral part of the presidential election process. If they do so, the commission believes that the parties will strengthen both the process and themselves. The parties may decide to delegate sponsorship or to involve other groups or the television networks, but ultimate responsibility should rest with the parties.

To achieve this goal, the commission urges the two parties to set up a mechanism, such as a joint committee. although some details, such as format, will most likely have to await approval by the participants, the commission urges that, before the nominating conventions, the joint committee deliberate and settle as many of the arrangements as possible, such as the number, dates, and locations of the joint appearances, the subject matter to be discussed, and how the panels of questioners, if any, are to be selected.

At least three joint presidential candidate appearances should be made between Labor Day and Election Day, approximately one month apart. They should be designed not only to elicit the candidates' views on important issues, but also, to the extent possible, to test other qualities and characteristics essential to a successful presidency.

To provide the U.S. voter with a better chance to judge the qualities of contenders for the vice presidency, there should also be at least one televised joint appearance by the nominees for vice president.

Major questions remain regarding the equal time requirements for television coverage of party versus independent or third-party candidates. Yet in the commission's judgement, the importance of television forums argues for erring on the side of favoring the party nominating processes rather than the rights of other candidates. This judgement, however, may need to be reviewed during each presidential election, depending on circumstances at the time.

although television forums are growing in importance, there is no perfect format to inform the American public of the qualities, views, and overall fitness of presidential candidates. Additional means must continually be sought to increase public awareness of issues and the candidates' abilities to be president and vice president.

Commission on National Elections Panel Members

Melvin R. Laird
Robert S. Strauss

Roone P. Arledge
Lloyd Bentsen
Michael S. Berman
Wayne L. Berman
Charles R. Black, Jr.
Thornton F. Bradshaw
Dean Burch
Tony Coelho
William T. Coleman, Jr.
Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr.
Charles D. Ferris
Wendell H. Ford
Katharine Graham
Lawrence K. Grossman
Loyd Hackler
Pamela C. Harriman
John Heinz
Robert E. Hunter
Hamilton Jordan
Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.
Paul G. Kirk, Jr.
Lane Kirkland
William A. Leonard
Leonard H. Marks
Lynn Martin
Charles Mathias, Jr.
Richard Moe
Edward N. Ney
John E. O'Toole
Dorothy S. Ridings
Charles S. Robb
Robert E. Rubin
John P. Sears
Richard R. Shinn
John H. Sununu
Preston Robert Tisch
Guy Vander Jagt
Lew R. Wasserman