The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was created by and for the major parties. Despite its stated commitment to "provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners," the CPD awards control of the presidential debates to the Republican and Democratic candidates, and the result is diminished voter education.
Before the CPD's formation, the League of Women Voters faithfully served as a genuinely nonpartisan presidential debate sponsor. It courageously ensured the inclusion of popular independent candidates and prohibited political parties from manipulating debate formats.
For example, in 1980, the League invited
independent candidate John B. Anderson to participate in a presidential
debate, even though President Jimmy Carter adamantly refused to debate
The major parties, however, would not tolerate a debate sponsor that limited their candidates' influence. In 1986, the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee ratified an agreement between "for the parties to take over presidential debates." In 1987, the heads of the Republican and Democratic parties incorporated the CPD and served simultaneously as co-chairmen of their parties and co-chairmen of the CPD.
In addition to their partisan ties, many board members of the CPD have close ties to multinational corporations. Co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf is the nation's leading gambling industry lobbyist, and co-chair Mike McCurry is a senior partner at major lobbying firm. Not surprisingly, the debates are now primarily funded through tax-deductible corporate contributions, and debate sites have become corporate carnivals, where sponsoring companies like Anheuser-Busch market their products.
The CPD demonstrates its subservience to the two major parties during the debate negotiation process. Every four years, Republican and Democratic negotiators meet behind closed-doors and draft secret contracts that determine which candidates participate and under what conditions. The CPD, posing as an independent sponsor, implements the dictates of the contracts, shielding the major party candidates from public criticism. In fact, the CPD replaced the League of Women Voters as debate sponsor by implementing the same 1988 Memorandum of Understanding that the League had so vociferously rejected.
In 1996, for example, candidates Bob Dole and Bill Clinton hatched a deal that ruined the presidential debates before they started. During debate negotiations, Dole demanded the exclusion of Reform Party nominee Ross Perot, even though Perot's campaign had received $29 million in taxpayers' funds and three-quarters of eligible voters wanted him included. Clinton, meanwhile, desired the smallest possible audience for the debates because he was comfortably leading in the polls. As a result of their agreement, Perot was excluded, follow-up questions were prohibited, one debate was canceled, and the remaining two debates were deliberately scheduled opposite the World Series, producing the smallest audience in presidential debate history.
In particular, the CPD allows the two major party campaigns to exercise excessive control over the design of the debate format. Candidates often handpick moderators, prohibit candidate-to-candidate questioning, require the screening of town-hall questions and even limit or ban follow-up questions. The result is often a series of glorified bipartisan news conferences, with the candidates superficially glazing over the issues.
Ultimately, as a result of CPD control, the debates fail to provide sufficient unscripted discussion between the leading presidential candidates. Fewer debates are held than necessary to educate voters. Candidates that voters want to see are often excluded. Restrictive formats allow participants to recite memorized soundbites and avoid actual debate. "It's too much show business and too much prompting, too much artificiality, and not really debates," said former President George H. W. Bush. "They're rehearsed appearances."