Not-So-Great Debates


The big news in the presidential campaign over the weekend was press speculation about when Bill Clinton would come out for Wesley Clark. Camped out in New Hampshire, the former NATO commander has become the journalists’ Seabiscuit. They have been looking for a person of substance to squash the loose-lipped former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and maybe Clark is the man. If not Clark, then there is John Edwards. He’s in the news not because of anything he said or did but because the Des Moines Register, a paper that passes muster with the mainstream journalism community, supports him. The reporters already have decided that Dennis Kucinich, who actually has ideas, isn’t worth bothering with because he can’t win. “Get Dean” is now, as it ever was, the cry.

One of the single best ways to restore substance to the presidential election process would be to get the press out of the debate business. As it now stands, reporters frequently track the different candidates on the basis not of content but of the spin they are fed by the different candidates’ media consultants. These spin doctors offer Cliffs Notes for reporters, explaining to them what this or that candidate really meant, along with the implications as they see them. Repeated over and over, the spin becomes fact—and the basis for future questioning in town hall meetings and debates. What the citizenry may want to know is lost amid know-it-all questioning by reporters. Debates, which are nominally meant to educate voters, become stripped of any serious meaning and are turned into PR/media circle jerks.

When the primary season is over, and the general election season begins, the debates are handed over to the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), an appendage of the Republican and Democratic parties. From 1976 to 1984, presidential debates were managed by the League of Women Voters in a more or less nonpartisan and equitable fashion. Beginning in 1986 the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties took control of the debates. Activists who favor fairer and more open debates are irate. “Although the CPD publishes candidate selection criteria and proposes debate formats, questions concerning third-party participation and debate formats are actually resolved by Republican and Democratic negotiators, who draft secret debate contracts behind closed doors,” argues George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, which wants to reform the system by setting up a new and fairer scheme. “The CPD executes the directives of the contracts, shielding the major-party candidates from public criticism,” Farah wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer, recalling how Frank Donatelli, debate negotiator for Bob Dole, summarized the process: “The commission throws the party, the commission gets the food, hires the band, but as to who shows up, what the time is and what the dress is, those are the candidates’ decisions.”

In 1992, the CPD tooted its own impartiality with a decision to let Ross Perot, an independent candidate, into the debates. That was possible only because George Bush Sr. wanted him included. In 1996, Perot, who had received $30 million in federal funds, was excluded from the debates as the result of a deal between Clinton and Dole—even though some polls showed that as many as three-quarters of likely voters wanted Perot included. “In 2000,” Farah wrote, “Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan were excluded from the presidential debates, although 64 percent of registered voters, according to one poll, wanted them included.”

“The CPD allows the two major-party campaigns to exercise even greater control over the selection of format,” says Farah. “Candidates handpick compliant panelists and moderators, prohibit candidate-to-candidate questioning, artificially limit response times, require the screening of town-hall questions, and often ban follow-up questions.” Even Bush the Elder no longer likes the system, saying, “It’s too much show business and too much prompting, too much artificiality, and not really debates.”

Farah’s group wants to lengthen the amount of time a candidate has to reply from the current 90 seconds to 4 1/2 minutes. This would at least cut down on the pre-packaged soundbites. In addition, Open Debates wants the candidates to have a chance to question one another. “This would take the focus off of panelists, moderators, etc., and put it where it belongs: the candidates,” says Chris Shaw, a spokesman for the group. “Debates between the candidates without panelist interference would make them more like debates, and less like glorified press conferences.” The reformers, he adds, also want to sponsor at least one town hall debate “where audience members ask questions that are not pre-screened, and can ask follow-up questions if the candidates dodge their question the first time around. This change would make the debates more about answering the electorate’s questions, and less about answering the media’s questions.”

Additional reporting: Ashley Glacel