The Debate debate

A good friend forwarded me this review of the new book, "No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates" by George Farah:

The central point of George Farah�s book is that since 1988 they�ve
been aided and abetted in this by the Commission on Presidential
Debates, which he considers a front for the two major parties and thus
something of a fraud. His argument is that the CPD is really a
bipartisan group, not a nonpartisan one, intent on preserving the
two-party structure and working hard to deny third-party candidates a
forum. In the process, he suggests, it has been able, in �secret� and
�covert� ways, to turn control of the debates over to the major parties
because the media collectively have either been asleep at the switch or
quietly applauding the effort.
He approaches the issue from many
different vantage points, all of them ending with the same conclusion �
that the commission has hijacked the debates from the public and turned
them over to the major parties, allowing the candidates to set most of
the rules. Most importantly, it has managed � with the exception of
Ross Perot in 1996 � to exclude third-party candidates completely.

I think this is a red herring. The fact that Perot was included in 1992 essentially disproves the conspiratorial accusation - clearly, if a candidate like Perot can break the third-party glass ceiling and pose a real threat of winning (and Nader never came close in 2000 to Perot's success), then the debate commission is forced to respond.

The third party candidates argue that debate access is a chance to air their opinion. But that's not how they would use that access - they would use it instead to try and paint both candidates as the same, and argue that only they themselves are a real choice. Thats exactly the strategem Nader employed in 2000 and the result was that a critical number of people actually believed him - and voted for Bush thinking that Gore would be no different.

Millions of lost jobs, an assault on our civil liberties, one just war left half-fought, one completely spurious war successfully won and then completely mismanaged, spurning of our allies when we most need their cooperation, a grotesque inflation of Medicare, a labyrinthine assault on the public school system, rampant Wall Street corruption, and the biggest intelligence failure of all time later... these guys still think they are doing a service for democracy?

More bluntly - lying for personal political gain about your opponents - in this case, arguing that the Two Big Guys are the Same Thing when they are clearly NOT - is not okay just because you're the underdog. so stop wrapping yourself in the flag as you do it. And if you want to build your third party, do it the old-fashioned way: at teh state and local level, one race at a time. Doing so requires the courage of your convictions rather than desperate envy of the Big Boys' media time.

The book does have make a point I agree with strongly, that the current debates, controlled by the political parties as they are, seek to shield the candidates from the voters. The review continues:

Farah is the executive director of an organization called Open
Debates, which wants to wrest control of the debates away from the
current sponsors and replace them with a new organization called the
Citizens Debate Commission.
Their goal is not just to open up the debates to serious minority
party candidates, but to turn them into real debates. The current
format, with no direct candidate-to-candidate questioning, with limited
follow-up questioning, with limited rebuttals, and with limited
response times, has resulted less in real debates than in what have
been described as �nationally televised joint appearances.�
The Commission on Presidential Debates was created in 1987 by Frank J.
Fahrenkopf Jr., then the head of the Republican National Committee, and
Paul G. Kirk Jr., then the head of the Democratic National Committee,
who remain the co-chairs. The stated goal was to ensure that
presidential debates would continue to be a part of every general
election. The unstated goal was to take control away from the League of
Women Voters, which had organized and managed the debates in 1976,
1980, and 1984. The major parties had become annoyed at the league
because it had pushed the candidates into debate formats that they had
resisted, had insisted on including John Anderson in a 1980 debate, and
had tried to subject the candidates to questioning by reporters the
candidates didn�t want asking the questions.

Now, I would love to see a real Lincoln-Douglas style debate (archived for posterity), one that lasts three hours instead of 90 minutes. But there's an element of pragmatism here - obviously the parties have a vested interest in avoiding that. But you have to acknowledge that the debate commission at present is not as docile as you'd think - they recently refused to sign the Bush campaign's demanded agreement for the unprecedented measures they want to shield Bush. The commission may be over-protective, but it's NOT meek, and it does take its duty seriously.

Further, I think they are going about it all wrong. Why not launch the Citizen's commission themselves and invite the candidates? (answer: because only the indies would show up, and it would descend into farce). Like it or not, you have to exclude the third-parties, and then just try to build a coalition of interests so compelling that the candidates don't dare say no.

This year, the crowds at Bush's campaign stops have been pre-screened and required to sign loyalty oaths. Its telling that Bush wants to avoid the "town hall" debate. Bring it on!! This isnt the year to care about third parties' debate access, its about convincing people that Bush is the worst president in american history (with the possible exception of McKinley).

A more relevant book to read right now is the meticulously-researched "When Presidents Lie" by Eric Alterman. The chapter on FDR's lie about Yalta is illuminating indeed...

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