In 1984, Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Mannat and Republican National Committee chairman Frank Fahrenkopf held several meetings to arrange for both major parties to jointly sponsor the presidential debates. "I am a believer and I think chairman Manatt is that the two major political parties should do everything in their power to strengthen their own position," explained Fahrenkopf. "We're party builders."
The next year, Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk (who replaced Mannat as DNC chairman) participated in the Commission on National Elections, a private study of the election process to which the CPD attributes its creation. The Commission on National Elections was co-chaired by Melvin Laird, a former Republican Congressman, and Robert S. Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Strauss had also been the chairman of President Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign in 1980, when John B. Anderson was included in the presidential debates over Carter's objections. Strauss had vociferously criticized the League's decision to include Anderson, claiming that it would "dilute" President Carter's ability to challenge Reagan.
The Commission on National Elections made only one significant recommendation - that the major parties usurp control over the presidential debates:
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. Major questions remain regarding the equal time requirements for television coverage of party versus independent or third-party candidates. Yet in the commission's judgment, the importance of television forums argues for erring on the side of favoring the party nominating processes rather than the rights of other candidates.
Six months later, in November 1985, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, while still the chairmen of their respective parties, authored a one-page Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential Candidate Joint Appearances:
It is our bipartisan view that a primary responsibility of each major political party is to educate and inform the American electorate of its fundamental philosophy and policies as well as its candidates' positions on critical issues. One of the most effective means of fulfilling that responsibility is through nationally televised joint appearances conducted between the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the two major political parties during general election campaigns. Therefore, to better fulfill our parties' responsibilities for educating and informing the American public and to strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process, it is our conclusion that future joint appearances should be principally and jointly sponsored and conducted by the Republican and Democratic National Committees.
In 1986, the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee actually ratified an agreement "for the parties to take over presidential debates." Fifteen months later, Fahrenkopf and Kirk created the CPD, and the Democratic and Republican parties issued a press release (700k PDF) calling the CPD "a bipartisan, non-profit, tax-exempt organization formed to implement joint sponsorship of general election presidential and vice-presidential debates, starting in 1988, by the national Republican and Democratic committees between their respective nominees." For the next 18 months, Fahrenkopf and Kirk served simultaneously as co-chairmen of their parties and co-chairmen of the CPD.
The CPD competed with the League for control of the 1988 presidential debates. After prolonged negotiations, they reached a simple compromise: The CPD would sponsor the first debate, and the League would sponsor the second. But when the League began preparing for the debate, the Bush and Dukakis campaigns handed it a secretly negotiated Memorandum of Understanding -- a contract that dictated nearly every detail of the debates, from the selection of panelists to the color of the timer lights on the podiums. The agreement even mandated that the League uninvite civic group leaders and replace them with a handpicked partisan audience.
On October 2, 1988, the League's trustees voted unanimously to pull out of the debates. The next day, the League issued a blistering press release (600k PDF):
The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates ... because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.
The CPD became the lone presidential debate sponsor and conducted the 1988 debates on exactly the same terms that the League deemed fraudulent. Ever since, the CPD has maintained a monopoly over the presidential debates.
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