CRASHING THE PARTY
Twelve: The Commission on Presidential Debates -- Dictacrats for the Republicrats
On the night of October 3, I was with Tarek Milleron and some reporters on a shuttle bus speeding past thousands of vociferous protesters and supporters behind barricades, flanked by hundreds of state police, on our way to the University of Massachusetts. Our eventual destination was a Fox News interview after the completion of the first ninety-minute presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush at the Clark Athletic Center. As the bus slowed, I was spotted by some supporters, and a great rolling cheer preceded us. The bus stopped in what seemed to be a parking lot, and we disembarked thinking that a representative or two from Fox News would be waiting. I had a ticket to get inside not the debate hall itself but the nearby Lipke Auditorium, which was reserved for people to watch the debate on closed-circuit television. On the bus with us was a family heading for the actual debate at the Clark Center, and we marveled at how elaborate and numbered each of their credentials were for that live event. Our plainly printed ticket was one of hundreds distributed by the University of Massachusetts to students in the Boston area to encourage them or their transferees to fill Lipke.
Instead of Fox News reps, we were met by a man who, escorted by a state trooper and two other men in police uniforms, claimed to be representing the Commission on Presidential Debates. He said he had been instructed by the Commission that regardless of whether I had a ticket, I was not welcome and would have to leave. I asked him first to identify himself and reveal who at the Commission instructed him. He said he was John Vezeris, a security consultant to the Commission, and repeated his charge. I asked him what was the reason, and during our exchange of words -- some in Greek -- State Trooper Sergeant McPhail stepped forward and stated that if I did not leave, he would have to arrest me. A few reporters were right there. I told the sergeant that he was being given an unlawful political order and that I had every right with my ticket in hand to sit in a public university hall to watch the debate on TV. The trooper became more impatient to get me back on the shuttle bus, and the sergeant said, "Mr. Nader, is it your intention to be arrested here?" My immediate thought was: What the hell? In the United States of America, I have a ticket to a public function at a public university, and without any cause or disruption, the authorities are throwing me out of the place. A private corporate power is using the state's police for its partisan political ends. Sounds like a definition of the corporate state. See you in court, man.
But as I always prefer to be a plaintiff rather than a defendant, my associate and I instead repaired to the shuttle and returned to a Metro train stop several miles away. There, the campaign's deputy press secretary, Laura Jones, contacted the Fox producer, who said that he'd meet us if we came back to the press entrance. I did a quick interview with Bloomberg Radio at the bus stop shelter, then got back onto the shuttle and went back once again past the barricades and the cheering crowd. No sooner did we get off the shuttle than we were met again by state troopers. But this time NBC's Today Show had a big camera with a bright light right there and did an interview with me while we looked for the elusive Fox people, who, it seems, were intimidated by the CPD and did not come from their trailer to bring us back for their post-debate interview. All the while, Sergeant McPhail was threatening me with arrest "for trespass" if I did not leave within three minutes. Nearby, two Secret Servicemen from the Boston office were observing. They said they had no role regarding this situation, but they wanted to be helpful, escorting us onto the shuttle and riding with us back to the T stop. On the bus I had a good conversation with one of them, Chief Boston Agent John O'Hara, regarding the abuse of authority without cause that we had just experienced. He couldn't have been more understanding and at the T stop arranged for a police cruiser to take us down to a Boston office building where, though late, we watched the end of the debate and gave Fox its interview. Although Mr. O'Hara can speak for himself, I received the impression he wouldn't have recommended handling this situation the way the Commission did.
In the following days, there was some public criticism around the country of the Commission's rude and arbitrary exclusion of me strictly for political reasons. Did this diminish the arrogance of the CPD? Paul Kirk, the Democratic co-chair, told a newspaper reporter that the ejection was ordered because I "was the point man for the protest." And this man is an attorney! The Commission must have been gratified at the absence of any expressions of outrage by leading civil liberty advocates in Congress or in the media. The ACLU, which has defended vigorously the constitutional rights of neo-Nazis to demonstrate and the right of tobacco companies to advertise, did not see fit to issue a protest. It was left to Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, who pronounced my expulsion in Boston as the "outrage of the week" on his weekend panel television program.
Two weeks later, I campaigned in St. Louis, Missouri, and was invited by the student television station (WUTV) for an interview at Washington University, where the third and final presidential debate (one wag called it the "Anheuser-Busch-Gore debate") was to be held. Our advance man had secured perimeter passes to do the interview at the TV studio far from the actual building where the debate was to take place. Arriving at the principal entrance to the university with my associates and a large number of reporters, photographers, and some television cameras, I met the student from the television studio. I was also met by police officers at the outermost checkpoint. Earlier that day, I had called up my former associate and coauthor, Joel Seligman, now dean of the university's School of Law, and asked if there was any time available for a short address to the students -- remembering his standing invitation for such a visit. He sighed and said that he had no control over who could enter his law school.
The campus was like an armed fort with the private corporate-funded CPD having the power to use university and city police not only for security but also to enforce its political prejudices. There was no disruption and no indication of any disruption whatsoever associated with our small group. Yet the police were pressed into a highly selective political maneuver. Two of my associates and I each had around our necks the green-and- white perimeter passes as we followed the student through the campus entrance. My path was blocked by a policeman who gripped my arm and pressed me back several yards to the main sidewalk, saying I would not be allowed entry. Meanwhile, my two associates were allowed to go through the guarded checkpoint several times back and forth showing the same perimeter passes. I asked to speak to the officer's superior, who came forward, followed by a snarling public relations representative of the Commission. He shouted that I did not have the proper credentials and had to get out, before quickly slithering back to where he came from. During this back-and-forth, as we were surrounded by reporters and tried to understand how the CPD could sequester the entire campus and use police to exclude anyone with differing political views, two police officers told my associates that they had been given specific orders to bar me, and no one else, from crossing the perimeter.
That day I filed a lawsuit against the CPD in federal district court in Boston for violating my civil rights. The case is pending and at the deposition stage at this writing. No one, candidate or not, should be treated this way in our country. Dictatorial behavior, by a private, partisan, two-party-controlled corporation, using public police power arbitrarily, shouldn't be tolerated in the land of the free and home of the brave. But it has been up to now.
How did this cancer in our democracy get started? How did it become an instrument of the two major parties, which have received millions in taxpayer dollars, to assure that only their candidates reach tens of millions of voters, not any of their challengers, even those whose participation is wanted by a majority of Americans polled?
The nonprofit private corporation that became the CPD was born in 1987, a creation of Republican and Democratic leaders who saw the presidential debate sponsor, the League of Women Voters, as too uppity. The League had a modest mind of its own but the two major parties wanted complete control for their nominated candidates. There would be no, more negotiations with the league over having John Anderson-type independents on the debates. No more having to abide by the rules of the League's managers. The dictacrats took over for the republicrats. In retrospect, this amazing coup was overshadowed by the equally amazing lack of vigorous protest from all kinds of groups -- the media, political scientists, political reform groups, and at least some members of Congress. It was treated as if it were a housekeeping detail.
Republican Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chair of the CPD, held a press conference in 1987, and described his new organization as "a bipartisan, nonprofit, 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." The CPD took over from the League when it refused to participate in what its president, Nancy Newman, called "a fraud on the American voter." She was referring to excessive demands made by Dukakis and Bush negotiators regarding the format, the type of questions, and other intrusions into the league's arm's-length stance. Another example of men seizing what little power women assembled in the electoral process.
From then on to the present, the Debate Commission's co-chairs, still Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, still serving corporate clients at their law firms, have maintained that the CPD's sole mission is educational, as befits its 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the Treasury Department. Let's examine that assertion. Simply said, bipartisan is not nonpartisan, particularly since the avowed goal, stated in the initial memorandum of agreement between Fahrenkopf and Kirk, was to "strengthen the two major parties." Concentrated power congeals, sustains, defends, and rationalizes itself to a fine point. The CPD has taken this motivation to the level of instinct-a marvelously modulated cabal. Notice how this malignant species has methodically covered its flanks so as to monopolize the simultaneous access by any competitors to the overall electorate. They have the recipe down pat.
First, make sure that the major elements of the two parties are in on the deal. Fahrenkopf, former head of the Republican National Committee and current president of the largest gambling lobby, took no risks. Together with Kirk, former head of the Democratic National Committee and current chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, he chose in 1987 a list of who's who in the two parties for the CPD's initial Board of Directors. Former Senator John Culver; Ambassador Pamela Harriman, later to become a veteran Clinton adviser; Vernon Jordan; former assistant to Walter Mondale, Richard Moe; the general counsel to the Republican Party, David Norcross; Governor Kay Orr; Representative Barbara Vucanovich; and Senator Pete Wilson. Two of these board members were replaced later by Representative John Lewis and Senator Paul Coverdale. Of the nine other board members, five are Democratic Party loyalists: Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Howard Buffet, Clifford Alexander, Newton Minow, and Antonia Hernandez. Three are Republican Party loyalists: former Senator john Danforth, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and Representative Jennifer Dunn. To ward off accusations of partisanship following the exclusion of Perot in 1996, the CPD invited Dorothy Ridings as the lone independent board member in 1998. Executive director Janet Brown is a registered Republican.
Second, connect with the corporate money to fund your operations. It helps that eight of the eleven CPD board members serve on major corporate boards. But really that type of overlap is not necessary, just facilitative. Corporations know a good tax deduction when they see it. The CPD spends more than half a million dollars to sponsor a single debate, and for-profit businesses cover most of that bill. Companies like Anheuser-Busch, Philip Morris, AT&T, Ford Motor Co., and Atlantic Richfield relish the opportunity to contribute to this proxy for both major parties and have their top executives rub shoulders with leading politicians at the festive occasions surrounding the debates. They believe that this participation can enhance their civic image and also can provide hospitality to six hundred journalists, many of whom are already predisposed to view these events as entertainment. Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for the Washington Post, wrote in his book Smashmouth of the Boston presidential debate:
(Actually, Milbank erred -- my ticket was to a nearby auditorium with closed-circuit television.)
If the people at the CPD worried about appearances, they were not showing it. Their stunted sense of propriety" can easily overlook the fact that the three candidates excluded by the Commission -- Perot, Buchanan, and Nader -- all had definite critiques of the very multinational corporations funding the debates. All three had support of the polls to be on the debates. However, these were not the polls that the CPD corporation had in mind.
Third, keep competitors off the debates under the guise of objective criteria. They automatically invited themselves, of course, and from 1988 to 1996 the CPD established the following subjective criteria, the absence of which would justify the exclusion of any competing presidential candidate: evidence of national organization, signs of newsworthiness and competitiveness, and indicators of national enthusiasm and concern. The CPD set up an advisory committee that would determine if any other candidate had these attractions in sufficient density -- get this -- to have a "realistic chance of winning" the election.
In 1996, Perot, having garnered nineteen million votes four years earlier, was just under 10 percent in the polls and therefore was deemed not to have a chance. So he was cut off at the pass. Since the basic data came down to the standing in the polls, Fahrenkopf and Kirk, after consulting their respective party bosses, decided to establish simple poll-based criteria for the 2000 campaign. In a January 2000 news conference at the National Press Club, these two longtime corporate attorneys dictated the barrier for the next campaign. As I've said before, it would be an average of five major commercial polls in September, which would have to meet or exceed 15 percent voting support for the candidate, along with meeting the constitutional requirements of age, citizenship, and being on enough state ballots to make up a majority of electoral college votes.
In one stroke, the CPD implicated the mass media in the decision. Although we could never obtain the documents to show what exchanges, if any, occurred with these polling organizations, we did know who owned or contracted with them (CNN/USA Today, ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News/New York Times, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Fox News). These news organizations were placed, willingly or unwillingly, in a position of significantly determining much of what the polls would register.
How is it that taxpayers can finance millions of dollars for a candidate's campaign for president if the candidate meets the Federal Election Commission's standard of garnering 5 percent of the popular vote four years earlier, and yet not see or hear him or her on the debates? Simple. The CPD and the two major parties have the power to say nyet because, through their corporations, they fund and dictate the rules. What do you think the privatization and corporatization of the presidential debates means? Certainly not to give seeds a chance to grow and nurture the barren landscape of our eroded democracy. Degenerating big parties are naturally not interested in regenerative open procedures.
The weakest defense of this extraordinary high threshold comes with CPD spokespersons raising the tired excuse that "hundreds of candidates run for president every election.." Although Bill Joe Clegg did run for president in 1996, along with 160 others, he was on the ballot in just one state. In 1988 only four candidates, in 1992 only five candidates, in 1996 only six candidates, and in 2000 only seven candidates were on enough state ballots to theoretically be able to win the White House. Canada seemed to have Ěno trouble in November 2000 having its two national debates include five candidates for the office of prime minister. Nor do the major parties believe that it is unwieldy to have seven or more candidates debating one another on the same stage during the primaries.
During 1992, when the criterion was "a chance to win," Ross Perot was included in the debates because both Clinton and Bush, each believing that Perot's presence would help his respective campaign, told the CPD to let him on. Four years later, according to Clinton aide George Stephanopolous, Bob Dole feared that Perot would take votes away from him, and the incumbent Clinton wanted the debates to be nonevents. Presto, the CPD excluded Perot. Further, the two major-party campaign officials, not the Commission, decide who will ask the questions, which gives the candidates a fairly good idea of the possible range of questions asked.
A majority of voters polled in 1999 wanted a viable third party in America to keep the other two parties honest. Independents make up a plurality of voters -- reflecting in part the increasing convergence of the two major parties. Historically, third-party candidates introduce new or neglected salient subjects and proposals that both major-party candidates either agree on and don't discuss or avoid so as not to alienate interest groups. All this conformity, self-censorship, protective imitation, and restrictive debate rules make for a gigantic turnoff on the television audience. One reason so many Americans wanted Buchanan and me on the debates was that they wanted to stay awake. Audience levels surged to over 90 million when Perot was on board in 1992. It was through his presidential debate appearances, together with his paid thirty-minute network television presentations, that he thrust the federal deficit, the proposed NAFTA, and the influence of special- interest lobbyists into the forefront of political discourse that year. He also did not talk like a politician -- an important sonic spice to the conventional droning between the drab and the dreary.
Some members of Congress have proposed various forms of legislation to broaden the presidential debate process. You probably never heard of them because they received almost no news or editorial notice. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois) proposed lowering the criterion from 15 to 5 percent voter support in the polls or a majority of those polled wanting the candidate's participation in such debates. Congressman Bill McCollum (R-Florida) recommended holding a preliminary debate with candidates on the ballot in all fifty states and then restricting the remaining three debates to candidates polling above 5 percent. Another model, by Congressman James Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), would invite all candidates who qualify for federal matching funds. Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) would prohibit candidates who accept federal matching funds from attending presidential debates that exclude candidates who are on forty or more state ballots. These proposals expose the paucity of imagination in our national discourse when, in the light of so many potential variations of how debates can be structured, scheduled, and covered, we allow ourselves to be cramped inside the CPD's narrow-minded strategic dictates. It is like allowing a corset to define the meaning of underwear.
Fourth, secure the full and exclusive cooperation of the television networks. Getting the networks to play follow-the-leader is simple. The debate negotiations between the two major campaigns are so unpredictable, dilatory, and minute, as they jockey for position, that the networks avoid playing an initiatory role like the plague. Since the two major candidates are the "talent," they can pretty much, given the passivity of the network, write their own ticket with the media -- except if they collide with preexisting contractual agreements where, for instance, a network has the exclusive contract to show the World Series. In fact, it did take Gore and Bush a long time to get together on the number of debates and the format.
Throughout 2000, Gore kept saying he would debate Governor Bush every week or more anywhere in the United States. After all, didn't Jim Fallows write a lead story in the Atlantic Monthly on how devastating a debater he was? How Gore crushed his primary opponents with rare ruthlessness, such as the job he did on Michael Dukakis in 1988, to set the stage for the Republicans' Willie Horton attack later that year? Bush, on the other hand, was playing coy. In late June, he was not even committing to the proposed three debates, suggesting that he and Gore wait to decide until after their parties' presidential nominating conventions. His candor inadvertently made the point that the debates were subject to tactical considerations, when he was asked whether he would support my presence in the debates. He told Reuters on his campaign plane from New York to Detroit, "I don't know. I haven't figured out the impact yet." The reporter followed up, noting that Bush's answer sounded as if he would be willing to let Nader in only if he believed it would help his own White House bid. Bush replied with a grin, "I am trying to win, aren't I?"
All this didn't sound like the CPD was either nonpartisan or just educational. Instead, it sounded like what the CPD has always been -- a servant of duopoly in the high-stakes game of Republican and Democratic presidential politicking. The candidates knew that thinking out loud, as Bush did, was not the appropriate response. At other times when Bush and Gore were asked about minor-party candidates getting on the debates, their standard reply was that they were ~imply following the CPD's gateway standard of 15 percent poll support. It was not up to them -- no, of course not.
Fifth, make sure that you cover your rear with the Federal Election Commission. In 1998, the FEC's chief lawyer, Lawrence Noble, issued a blistering report. He took note of strict FEC regulations that (1) bar corporate contributions to organizations sponsoring debates that do not have pre-established objective criteria that determine candidate participation and (2) prohibit nomination by a particular party as the sole objective criterion to determine whether to include a candidate in a debate.
Noble concluded that the CPD's 1996 criteria for third-party inclusion in the presidential debates were subjective, rather than "pre-established objective." He argued that relying on the "professional opinions of the Washington bureau chiefs of the major newspapers, news magazines, and broadcast networks" and "the opinions of representative political scientists specializing in electoral politics at major universities" was inherently subjective. Moreover, in his legal opinion, the CPD criteria violated FEC debate regulations because major-party candidates were automatically invited to the presidential debates, regardless of their position in the polls.
Then came the blockbuster. Longtime general counsel Noble questioned whether the criteria were applied at all. He suspected that the major-party candidates, not the CPD, had determined Perot's exclusion. Consequently, he requested a full-blown investigation, complete with depositions and subpoenas, of the selection process.
Noble's recommendation was unanimously rejected by all six members of the FEC. It was a considerable convenience to the CPD that by statutory-inspired custom the FEC is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans. The regulatory flank was protected. The cabal was completed. Our year 2000 lawsuit in Boston's federal court to invoke the 1911 law banning corporate contributions to federal candidates was rejected.
As the debate over the debates continued, a surprising number of newspapers and public figures urged my presence on at least one of the debates. In mid-June, the Christian Science Monitor denounced the 15 percent hurdle:
The paper argued that any candidate who gets, or whose poll figures indicate he or she will get, public monies should be given room at the debate table.
The Seattle Times, also in June, editorialized that Buchanan and I should be allowed on at least one debate. If after the first debate a third party's nominee's polls go up to 8 or 10 percent, the door to the second debate is opened. In the third round, the paper argued, the threshold should go up again, to 15 or 20 percent. "It would add a note of excitement," the editorial concluded, adding that the" 15 percent threshold suits the two parties. It unduly restricts the American people." That latter point is the essential one. The prime consideration is the right and need of the American people to have a wide array of information and viewpoints. Perot, noted the editorial, "went into the debates with 7 percent support. He went on to win 19 percent of the vote."
In mid-July, the St. Paul Pioneer Press weighed in, calling me a "substantial candidate, one whose issues and priorities are different from Al Gore and George W. Bush" and one who "should be included in this fall's presidential debates." Taking a swing at the CPD, the paper declared that "there must be more reasonable rules for third-party participation." On September 1, the San Jose Mercury News urged my inclusion on the first debate and let the subsequent poll numbers decide whether I would be on the next debates. The paper's main argument, however, was not numerical.
Apart from these editorials boosting our campaign's office morale, they all have a subtext to their judgments. The CPD's presidential debates are not really debates; they are extended, managed press conferences involving highly predictable or bland questions to two candidates whose principal objectives are to avoid slipups, gaffes, and stylistic offenses that can turn off large numbers of undecided voters, and to reiterate, regardless of the question, the well-practiced paragraphs from the rhetoric throughout the campaign. All this bores people. Dan Rather expressed these sentiments right after the second Bush-Gore meeting when he was impelled to describe their debate as "narcolepsy-inducing."
It is telling that when people are asked to remember past presidential debates, what they call up are phrases like "Where's the beef?" (Mondale v. Hart), "I won't hold your youthful age against you" (Reagan v. Mondale), "I paid for this mike" (Reagan v. Republican primary opponents), or "You're no Jack Kennedy" (Bentsen v. Quayle).
Perhaps a yearning for forthrightness, for coming to grips with central matters too long unspoken, and for highlighting solutions upsetting to power structures were some of the reasons why prominent political commentators and figures said publicly or privately that they wanted me in on the debates. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), House Budget Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio), White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, and Mark Shields were among those who favored inclusion. Mr. Shields came in late with his October 26 column in quite touching words: "My apology to Ralph Nader for not demanding he be included in the presidential debates. Nader does not let us forget all we owe to our community, our country and to each other. He deserves to be heard beyond the arenas he, alone, can fill."
Many more such expressions by influential people would not have changed the CPD's intransigence. As Temple University law professor David Kairys wrote: "The corporate- funded major parties, which have for many years alienated or bored most of the populace, are literally excluding their principled opposition from the debates.... The CPD ... is completely dominated by the same corporations and two parties and is unaccountable to the government or the people." The Constitution, Professor Kairys might have added, does not apply to such private governments.
And, predictably, the debates were awful -- each worse than the one before. Audiences shrank, ranging from sixty-some million to forty-some million. Some of the criticisms for the sheer drowsiness of the events were directed toward Jim Lehrer, the choice by both candidates to ask the questions in the first two debates and manage the audience's questions in the third. If I were Lehrer, I would reply to my critics with a sports metaphor. What if a boxing promoter hired a referee, placed him in a straitjacket, and sent him into a ring where the boxers banged on each other in the corner? Lehrer had to play by the rules the candidates themselves had set forth, as he himself pointed out a couple of times during the debates. Granted those parameters, Richard Berke of the New York Times reported on the day of the third debate in St. Louis, there is "intensifying criticism from partisans and analysts who complain that he did not sufficiently probe the candidates in the first two debates and was not particularly aggressive in following up his questions. The result, these critics say, is that the nominees were left off the hook on vital matters and the debates meandered to the point where they verged on being downright tedious." Lehrer told Berke that his job was to foster give-and-take and that "if somebody wants to be entertained, they ought to go to the circus. Or they ought to go to the ballgame. I didn't sign on to entertain people for ninety minutes three times. These have been tremendous exercises for democracy." Tremendous exercises for democracy? Thank you, Pericles.
This is a debate? When Gore and Bush lay down a rule that prohibits them from asking each other direct questions! The two candidates also stipulated that the questions and subjects for the first two debates had to be chosen by Mr. Lehrer. He relayed these and other formats to the television audience at the outset. Then came a terrible downer, and a patronizing one at that, which generated exactly the wrong kind of ambience for what was to follow. Mr. Lehrer stated: "There is a small audience in the hall tonight. They are not here to participate, only to listen. I have asked, and they have agreed, to remain silent for the next ninety minutes. Except for right now, when they will applaud as we welcome the two candidates, Governor Bush and Vice President Gore." How inappropriate. Why bother with an audience at all? Answer? To provide a prop for the instructed applause and a graphic for the television. Unworthy of all involved.
I retrieved a twenty-year-old New York Times editorial asking Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to agree to a debate that "enhances face-to-face discussion. Get rid of the clock and the fussy 'Time's up' warnings and get the reporters out of the way. Keep it simple, flexible and open -- a moderator, two chairs and maybe a coffee pot. Sparks should fly."
In Boston, Winston-Salem, and St. Louis, the debates were very repetitive; the candidates often brushed aside Lehrer's questions so as to repeat their campaign mantras. From Gore's lockbox and paying off the debt to Bush's educational testing and tax cut ("You can spend your money more wisely than the federal government can"). In the second debate, the two candidates agreed so often that it became the stuff of comedians. It reached authentic hilarity when Bush said and Gore dittoed that he also was not "for command and control techniques either." Gore parroted this two minutes after he rejected the idea that "pollution controls should be voluntary."
It is easy for an onlooker to criticize any political debate and the participants, if one does not empathize with the time limitations, the pressure on the candidates, and the questions they would like to get asked but don't. But because this was their own show and their format, the candidates have no one to blame but themselves. They set the rules whereby they could not ask questions of each other, and Lehrer was severely restricted from asking the searching follow-up questions because he saw himself as a moderator, not an interviewer. For example, Lehrer allowed far too many repetitions over the three debates, which dulled the tempo and content of the event. One way to have dealt with these repetitions would have been to ask Bush, for example, why is giving back tax monies to America as a community (repairing clinics, schools, public transit, drinking water systems, etc.) any less of a return to the people of the alleged surplus than sending out rebate checks to individuals? Or if "testing is the cornerstone" of Bush's education plan, what kinds of tests and standards would he apply and how would he administer and enforce such a top- down structure from Washington to thousands of local school districts? This is an immense logistical undertaking by Bush, and he was allowed to get away with generalities like "accountability" and "consequences."
The role of money in elections and how it affects politicians was -- surprise -- largely ignored. So were the subjects of corporate welfare, globalization WTO and NAFTA style, the criminal justice system, the drug war, a living wage, universal health care, consumer protection, unions and union building, military budget cuts, housing, energy, public transit, biotechnology, and the civil justice tort system. Wherever Bush and Gore agreed, there were no challenging questions. For example, both nominees claimed that capital punishment deters homicides when studies for more than two generations have contradicted that assertion. Both wanted to increase the military budget, so there were no questions on the perfectly legitimate topic of cutting the military budget in a post-Cold War period.
Anybody can ask his or her favorite questions. But what I am suggesting with these few illustrations is that no moderator should allow such tidal waves of practiced speeches that reflect converging two-party politics and close out windows of information and insight for voters to evaluate the candidates. In response to a reporter's question, I called the Winston-Salem debate "an interminable tedium of platitudinous dittos" -- in other words, Bush and Gore became a cure for insomnia.
There was considerable discussion in the second debate, at Wake Forest, about the use of U.S. power overseas. But there was not one fresh proposal from either candidate, such as in launching a major assault on global infectious diseases, which our country is uniquely positioned to lead. In that same debate, Bush said, "We're going to go after all crime." Think what he would have said if Mr. Lehrer asked him whether that includes heavily neglected corporate crime whose widely reported practices take far more lives and produce far more injuries and diseases than does street crime.
During and after the debates there were many comments about which Gore persona appeared at any given debate. He seemed to be into makeovers -- a classic example of how hard it is to be all things to all people. Clearly, the Gore who wrote in the book Earth in the Balance (1992) that the internal combustion engine was a major threat to the world's environment was different from the Vice President Gore who helped combine a billion- dollar taxpayer subsidy to GM, Ford, and Chrysler over a clean engine project that produced nothing in eight years other than federal regulatory abdication of fuel efficiency improvements. Given the legendary opposition by the auto industry to any regulatory standards or upgrades, why did Al Gore have to say once that "Detroit is itching to build" the new kinds of clean trucks and cars and again that "Detroit is raring to go on that"? This transparent pandering could have invited a penetrating question.
It was not that there were too few subjects mentioned or touched on -- I counted about thirty in the three debates, albeit within very conventional ranges. It's how superficial the handling of these subjects was and, most important, how removed they were from the actual record of Bush and Gore in office. The moderator did not see fit to "accentuate the differences," as Senator Bob Kerrey observed. Lehrer left himself with an occasional plea to the candidates to please tell the audience about their differences. The rate of agreement between the major-party candidates in presidential debates increased from 14 percent in 1976 to a whopping 37 percent in 2000.
With the third debate, in St. Louis, came the citizens' turn to present their questions in advance, get selected, and then stand and ask them. Not spontaneous, but more concise. The subjects were the conventional ones -- HMOs, price of prescription drugs, national health care, family farms and agricultural policy, paying attention to youth, affirmative action, and others. But they were often asked with an edge that jolted the candidates a little and sharpened their replies.
The last question persuaded me once again that schoolchildren often ask the clearest, most direct questions. Thomas Fischer got up and asked: "My sixth-grade class at St. Claire's School wanted to ask of all these promises you guys are making and all the pledges, will you keep them when you're in office?" There was laughter. Then Gore said "yes," and there was more laughter. Although the question was treated like a softball down the middle by Gore and Bush, the schoolboy was serious. We should be too.
Part of the failure of "sparks to fly" rested squarely on Gore's shoulders. Bush was by far the more testy person. When he wasn't agreeing, he referred to Gore as "he" or "him" or "the man" and came forth with taunts and false figures. Gore must have decided he wasn't going to tangle at those points of interaction. This may have been a mistake, as far as avoiding potentially dramatic moments in your favor. Bush seemed to gain confidence from Gore's aversions and became more folksy and colloquial. He actually had Gore's number with a few simple techniques: "The man is practicing fuzzy math again," "That's totally false for him to stand up here and say that," or ideological bell ringers like, "He'll put liberal activist justices who will use their bench to subvert the legislature, that's what he'll do." When Gore got around to rebutting Bush, he did so in such a cumbersome, patronizing fashion that it was like he was imitating Darrell Hammond on Saturday Night Live.
When the debates were over, the pundits rendered their various verdicts, but the polls did not change dramatically. This was really a win for Bush, who exceeded expectations and came across as a regular genial fellow while managing to cuff Gore around a bit. On the other hand, Gore received criticism for his body language and his tone -- not trivial matters for a television audience.
During all this focus on the question of presidential debates, I noticed increasing frustration and a touch of melancholy among our campaign staff as the absence of any alternatives to the CPD's debates became clear. My letters and calls in early September to major labor unions to sponsor debates in critical midwestern states and to the major networks to invite the four major candidates for a series of debates produced no results. The inevitability of the done deal had afflicted these institutions as well. One former vice president of a large union told me that labor leaders did not want to see Gore challenged by me because they feared Bush more. It gets worse. After the election, Robert Kuttner, the co-editor of The American Prospect, told me that he invited an influential labor union chief to write a lengthy article on what labor wants from the Democratic Party and was turned down. He did not want to embarrass Gore by putting him on the spot.
In many ways the debates phenomenon was a critical litmus test for our society's accelerating surrender to the commodification of our elections. The white-gloved managers and consultants have taken over and put the whole election on the tube, and if you don't like it, there is always the "off" button. That's the definition of freedom -- if you don't like it, grab the remote control. Under this lifeless, plastic system where you don't have a say, you're going to continue to pay.
In a post-election article in the New York Observer, Nicholas von Hoffman saw Janet Brown, the CPD's executive director, as the sour personification of the rigid, passionless
Our society has been given its Khyber Pass by the two parties' CPD. It is not surprising that only two candidates can pass through it to the people. It is probably best to view all these dictacrats as an authoritarian result of a serious default among all of us as disserved citizens. In order to break the grip of the Commission there needs first to be a reassertion of civic activity knocking early on the doors of the foundations, the civil society groups, the trade unions, and the media to establish a nonpartisan People's Debate Commission.
By planning now for 2004, before tactical considerations associated with preferred candidates undermine a fundamental strategy of open, numerous, and varied debates with true vigorous formats, an alternative plan that is broadly based and supported can be launched. Why ration debates? Before the primary season, the probable contenders are much more vulnerable to just and fair procedures. If candidates are asked for early commitments and faced with substantial media agreements to carry the debates, a new tradition could start to take hold -- a tradition that keeps its options open for fresh ideas and energies from the citizenry.
The Green Party and other reform groups will be working to heighten the demand for a moral reciprocity that flows from the parties and the media to the public. For it is taxpayers' dollars that fund primaries, elections, and conventions, and it is the people's asset called the public airwaves that the television and radio broadcasters use, free of charge, when they receive their very profitable licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. The parties and the media should be expected to contribute to a more open and accessible democratic process.
Millions of Americans who have a close interest or stake in one major public policy issue after another should not be told by a private company, controlled by the duopoly, that they will not have these subjects discussed because candidates who would do so are excluded from nationally televised debates.
The Gore-Bush debates were laced with self-censorship and latent taboos against these issues, or their respective records, being raised or debated or challenged vigorously. We need more straightforward questions, such as that asked by the Business Week cover story in September 2000: Mr. Gore, Mr. Bush, do large corporations -- banks, insurance companies, HMOs, chemical, drug, food, auto, biotech firms, real estate, agribusiness, the prison industries, and military contractors -- have too much power in Washington, D.C.? Now, there is the mother of many healthy provocations, the likes of which an experienced Marron Mintz-type interviewer could have engrossed millions of viewers and listeners for one entire debate theme. (See www.Tompaine.com for a sampling of questions Mintz would ask.)
One thing is for sure: After such a debate, in the minds of millions, Gore and Bush would have both shrunk from this red-hot immersion in the crucible of political reality.