Friday, October 05, 2012

An October glimpse of an American spring?

I just realized that Wednesday was an important day in the history of presidential debates.

No, not because of anything Mitt Romney said about Big Bird or garage banks, or anything President Obama didn't say.

Wednesday was the anniversary of an event that made the debate between Messrs. Obama and Romney possible. And not in a good way.

On October 3, 1988, the League of Women Voters issued a press release saying that the group would no longer sponsor presidential debates.

To appreciate the importance of that announcement, you have to understand what led up to it.

The League sponsored presidential debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984. In those debates, the candidates were questioned by panels consisting of between three and six journalists, representing both print and broadcast media and a variety of political leanings.

The 1988 debates featured panels of journalists, as well; but behind the scenes, a major change had taken place.

In 1987, Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. and Republican National Committee Chairman Frank H. Fahrenkopf, Jr. formed the Commission on Presidential Debates.

According to the commission's website, the CPD's mission is: ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners. Its primary purpose is to sponsor and produce debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates

In September 1988, the leadership of both the George H.W. Bush and the Michael Dukakis presidential campaigns presented the League of Women Voters with a "debate agreement," including a list of demands that would give the campaigns "unprecedented control over the proceedings," according to the League's press release.

The League, saying that they refused to help perpetrate fraud on the American people, withdrew its sponsorship of the debates. Since then, the CPD has been the sole sponsor of the debates.

And since then, these things have happened:

Third-party candidates have been denied participation in the debates. With the exception of Ross Perot n 1992, no third-party candidates have participated in any CPD-sponsored presidential debates - and in 2000, the organization created a rule that could prevent third-party candidates from ever doing so. As the Center for Public Integrity writes:

To debate, a candidate must now show an average of 15 percent support in five selected national public opinion polls prior to each debate.

That famously kept Green Party Ralph Nader out of the presidential debates in 2000, and has kept other third-party candidates from participating since then.

Third-party candidates have been denied attendance at the debates as audience members. The CPI piece details how in 2000, Ralph Nader, and in 2004 Libertarian nominee Michael Badnarik and Green Party nominee David Cobb were not allowed into the buildings where the debates were being held.

The panels of journalists have been replaced by a single moderator. The last debate featuring a panel was on October 19, 1992, when Gene Gibbons of Reuters, Helen Thomas of UPI and Susan Rook of CNN questioned the candidates.

In the 12 debates since then and prior to Wednesday, there has been a single moderator - in eight of them, Jim Lehrer.

Much has been made of Lehrer's performance (or non-performance) Wednesday night. But the question so many are asking - "Why did Jim Lehrer peform so poorly?" - misses the larger question that should be asked: "Why is there no panel?"

Reducing a field of candidates to two, and a panel of journalists to one, nearly guarantees a flattening of discourse that makes it easy for both the President and his challenger to ignore truly challenging questions. I, for one, wish that a journalist would ask both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney how they might end the so-called "War on Drugs," which has led to the U.S. imprisoning a greater proportion of its population than any other nation on earth.

The CPD is denying the American people the opportunity to hear from candidates whom a great many Americans will already vote for, and whom more might choose to vote for if they heard them. That may not be a crime, and it may not be a sin, but it's a low-down dirty shame.

However, just as Wednesday was the anniversary of the day when one could say that darkness fell on the debates, it also offered a glimpse of a new dawn.

On Wednesday night, thanks to the ethersphere, I was able to hear from three non-CPD-approved candidates: Green Party nominee Jill Stein and Justice Party nominee Rocky Anderson responded to Mr. Lehrer's questions at Democracy Now's website, and the Libertarian Party nominee, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, responded via Twitter.

Tracking all three of them, along with Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, via two netbooks plus our TV, was pretty darn messy. But if my non-geek self managed, then the tools are definitely in place for expanding debates beyond the CPD borders.

Is an American spring brewing?


michelleferrier said...

We can use the tools to educate, disrupt, entertain, provoke, or converse. We can also use them to expand our notions of presidential debates. Your comments cut to the structural level and question the construct of what is made to be "invisible." You go beyond the words to explain how the structure narrows discourse. Nice work!

Elwin Green said...

Thanks Michelle - I first learned about the 1988 change in debate sponsorship in a doc about Ralph Nader ("An Unreasonable Man," I think), and thought that helped to explain why they've gone downhill. The scary thing, for me, is the cooperation of the press. I can only imagine that at some point the leadership of both parties said, "Do it our way or there won't be any debates." But that is just my imagining. I want to read more on the matter.