Let's Take Back the Debates!
by Jamin B. Raskin
The Nation magazine, Feb. 7, 2000
If Jesse Ventura had been excluded from the Minnesota gubernatorial
debates in 1998, he almost certainly would have lost his run for
governor. But the Reform Party nominee-a giant, bald, all-pro
wrestler derided by the state establishment as frivolous and unelectable-was
invited to participate in the eight televised debates of that
campaign, and by the end of these spirited discussions, Minnesotans
concluded that Ventura had far more ambitious plans for their
state than did the two-party-system retreads he trounced on Election
At the presidential level, where campaigns have been subsumed
by private wealth and corporate power, the suggestion that general-election
debates be opened up to outsider-candidates and citizen questioners
is considered heretical. Presidential debates are designed not
as the focal point in a broad public dialogue among our divergent
political forces-Democratic, Republican, Independent, Reform,
Libertarian, Green-but as a ritual celebration of the two-party
system and its incestuous marriage to corporate capital. In every
pundit's revealing metaphor, debates are the "Super Bowl
of American politics," a bipartisan campaign commercial brought
to you by corporate sponsors who profit from America's money politics
regardless of which team prevails on Election Day.
The official organizer is the Commission on Presidential Debates
(CPD), which was set up by the Democratic and Republican National
Committees in 1987 to oust the League of Women Voters, which had
the temerity to invite Independent John Anderson to debate in
1980 and refused to be a marionette for the two parties. Despite
its recent appalling insistence that it is "nonpartisan,"
the CPD was launched as an avowedly "bipartisan" corporation
"to implement joint sponsorship of general election presidential
and vice-presidential debates. . .by the national Republican and
Democratic Committees between their respective nominees."
It has been chaired continuously by Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. and Paul
Kirk Jr., the former national Republican and Democratic party
chairs and powerhouse lawyer/lobbyists. The debate commission
has been scrupulously divided ever since between Democratic and
Republican Party loyalists.
With truly comic solemnity, the CPD in 1996 made a show of
pretending to consult a long list of arbitrary and manipulable
"factors" to decide whether Ross Perot was "electable"
and therefore eligible to debate. The fact that he was on the
ballot in fifty states and the District of Columbia, had won 19
percent of the vote in 1992 and had received nearly $30 million
in public funds to run was deemed insignificant. The key factors
were the "professional opinions of the Washington bureau
chiefs of major newspapers, news magazines, and broadcast networks,"
the "opinions of a comparable group of professional campaign
managers and pollsters not then employed by the candidates under
consideration" and the "published views of prominent
When the CPD excluded Perot and the Green Party's Ralph Nader,
it meant that the two pro-NAFTA, pro-GATT, pro-corporate, soft-money
candidates were left to debate in peace while the anti-Establishment
candidates, Perot and Nader, were branded "unelectable."
When you declare certain candidates "not viable," you
of course guarantee their non-viability and facilitate a conspiracy
of silence on key issues.
The CPD's governance-by-pundits is such an affront to democracy
that it is almost a relief to read the proceedings of a post-election
conference at Harvard's Institute of Politics, which tell the
true story of how an old-fashioned back-room political conspiracy
actually shut the door on Perot in 1996. Explaining that the Clinton
campaign "wanted the debates to be a nonevent," George
Stephanopoulos, then a senior adviser to the President, detailed
the dynamics of excluding Perot: "[The Dole campaign] didn't
have leverage going into the negotiations. They were behind; they
needed to make sure Perot wasn't in it. As long as we could agree
to Perot not being in it we could get everything else we wanted
going in. We got our time frame, we got our length, we got our
Although the CPD is well-known as a front group for the two
parties, its enmeshment with corporate America is more obscure.
The CPD has operated over the years by collecting millions of
dollars in contributions from large corporations, which not only
receive in return bundles of free debate tickets, receptions,
trinkets and access to the candidates but also selective exposure
to the American public. In 1992, after pumping into the debates
some $250,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, Philip Morris
won the right to hang a "large banner visible during post-debate
interviews." It should have read: "The 1992 American
presidential campaign, brought to you by the cancer industry."
Today's electoral-industrial complex is so tightly constructed
that the same corporate interests bankrolling the CPD-which purports
to make objective decisions on who should participate in the debates-also
pump millions in soft money directly into Democratic and Republican
coffers. Anheuser-Busch, a proud debate sponsor in 1992 and 1996,
has given more than a million dollars in soft money directly to
the DNC and RNC in the last four years. The corporate "king
of beer" recently announced that, having given $550,000 to
the CPD, it would be the "sole sponsor" of the presidential
debate in St. Louis this year. Perennial debate sponsor Philip
Morris gave more than $3 million to the two parties in 1996. Bank
of America poured hundreds of thousands of dollars that year into
the coffers of both major parties and the debates that advertised
If the Federal Election Commission (FEC) had not itself been
captured by the campaign industry, it could have blown the whistle
on this outrageous corporate subsidization and promotion of two
parties over the others. After all, federal election law categorically
forbids corporate expenditures and contributions in federal elections,
and these closed, two-candidate debates are nothing more than
a disguised corporate contribution to the two parties that run
national government. The blending of private corporate power with
public elections is precisely the evil forbidden by the Federal
Election Campaign Act.
Responding to a 1996 complaint by Ross Perot's campaign committee,
Lawrence Noble, general counsel of the FEC, issued a report in
1998 finding "reason to believe" that the 1996 debates
themselves constituted illegal campaign contributions and that
the CPD was operating as an illegal "political committee"
on behalf of the two major parties. Noble, who should be declared
whistleblower of the nineties, wrote: "The role played by
Clinton/Gore and Dole/Kemp in CPD's debate participant selection
process and the role played by the DNC and the RNC in the creation
of CPD suggest that CPD's major purpose may be to facilitate the
election of either of the major parties' candidates for president."
But when Noble turned his report in to the FEC commissioners-Democrats
and Republicans themselves appointed in a strictly bipartisan
(and constitutionally dubious) manner- they unanimously voted
to reject their own general counsel's conclusions. Citing the
objectivity of the "pool of experts" consulted in the
CPD's process, the FEC gave its blessing to the CPD's manipulable
and tautological "electability" screen for debate participation.
In 2000 the debate issue could blow right open. Every public
opinion poll done in 1996 showed huge majorities of the American
people supporting the right of Perot to debate and registering
disapproval of his exclusion. Public figures across the spectrum,
even conservatives like George Will, are rebelling at the naked
manipulation of public opinion through debate gerrymandering.
The anarchic spirit of the Internet age is prepared to collide
with the closed debates choreographed by the CPD.
In response to the 1996 debacle, the CPD has set a new criterion
for debate participation: Candidates must average 15 percent support
in five national public opinion polls a week before each debate.
Amazingly, the CPD announced that it would be up to the pollsters
themselves to decide whether to include third-party candidates
in their polling questions. Thus, if two of the five polling organizations
decided not to list hypothetical Green candidate Ralph Nader (most
pollsters omitted him in 1996) and he therefore came in at zero,
he would need to average 25 percent in the other three to make
the cut. Of course, polls are famously skewed against outsiders
from the start, and many people refuse to tell pollsters the truth:
No pollster predicted Ventura would win, for example.
At any rate, the CPD is asking the wrong question. The relevant
question is not, "Whom do you think you would vote for today
before the debate has even taken place?" It is, "Whom
do you want to see included in the debate so you can decide what
the important issues are and to help clarify your choices and
thoughts?" Yet the CPD, which purports to act in the public
interest, would never touch this approach. As much as 76 percent
of the public said Perot should be invited to debate in 1996,
which gives you a sense of how dangerous procedural democracy
would be to the guardians of rigged debate.
The CPD's arbitrary 15 percent polling figure is triple the
statutory 5 percent that a new party needs to have collected in
a presidential election for federal public funding of a subsequent
campaign. Where does the CPD get the right to override not only
federal law but constitutional democracy? Rule-by-pollsters defeats
the whole idea of a campaign, which the CPD seems not to understand
is more than just a mathematical contest over who will win. It
is the way we float new political ideas and change public opinion.
Abe Lincoln lost his campaign for the Senate against Stephen Douglas
in 1858, but the program he spelled out in their famous debates
captured the nation's imagination and led to his election as President
two years later-on the relatively new Republican Party ticket
It would not be hard to design both new debate-invitation
criteria and a new commission that would broaden democratic discussion
and still prevent the dread "cacophony" that the CPD
constantly invokes (a problem that does not trouble Democratic
and Republican managers when it takes place within their party
primaries, as witnessed in numerous New Hampshire debates that
have included Steve Forbes, George W. Bush, John McCain, Alan
Keyes, Orrin Hatch and Gary Bauer). There should be two or three
criteria for candidates to receive a debate invitation: The candidate
should be (1) constitutionally eligible to serve as President;
(2) on the ballot in a sufficient number of states-which takes
hundreds of thousands of signatures-such that the candidate could
actually collect a majority in the Electoral College; and (3),
if the prior two criteria would produce more than five candidates,
reasonably likely to affect the outcome of the election or to
advance public discourse.
This last criterion is obviously open to interpretation, so
the key question becomes who will be applying the criteria. Right
now we have a commission of people selected for their service
and loyalty to two parties purporting to speak for all Americans.
There are no Independents, no Greens, no Reform Party members,
no Libertarians involved. In other words, one-third of the public
has no representation in this body. If we all agree that the debates
should be held in the interests of the American people, why not
develop a process that reflects all of the people?
Let us return to the old-fashioned American institution of
the grand jury and invite twenty-three American citizens chosen
at random to come together to deliberate and invite presidential
candidates to debate. They could also choose the moderators
and questioners, who do not have to be journalists. Why not also
union leaders, university presidents, businesspeople, historians?
Why not the citizen-members of this grand jury themselves? Everyone
remembers Bernard Shaw asking Michael Dukakis in 1988 whether
he would favor the death penalty for a man who raped his wife.
The Democrat's wooden response sealed his fate. But Shaw could
also have asked the pro-life George Bush whether, if his wife
or daughter were raped, he would insist on her bringing a resulting
pregnancy to term.
If there is any hope of derailing a corporate takeover of
the 2000 election, our much-celebrated but underutilized "civil
society" in the United States-the universities, foundations,
unions and civic groups-must stand up and reclaim our debates
and our campaigns. One of the wonderful things about the Lincoln-Douglas
debates was the spirited interaction between the audience and
the candidates, complete with cheers, jeers and well-timed heckling.
It is a measure of our democratic disempowerment today that the
American people are completely passive spectators in our presidential
debates, consumers of a controlled corporate spectacle that wears
our expectations like an armored suit and may as well be offering
us a choice between Budweiser and Bud Light.
Jamin B. Raskin is a professor of constitutional law at American
University s Washington College of Law and director of its Appleseed
Project on Electoral Reform. In 1996 he represented Ross Perot
in his efforts to be included in the presidential debates. He
is the author of "The Debate Gerrymander" in the June
1999 Texas Law Review.