The debates are talking-point GIFs that are strikingly terrible. Let’s remake them to serve the public interest.
In the second to last episode of The Newsroom, HBO’s frenzied new series, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sells a new kind of debate. Pitching to Republican operatives, the Atlantic Cable News stages a mock forum. As the moderator, McAvoy is a raging bull. Against the politicians’ rote talking points, he pummels with forceful follow-up questions, piercing fact checks, and an aggressive attitude of: “are you kidding me?” It had the feel of Bill O’Reilly meets 60 Minutes, formidable intensity fused with civic mindedness.
It’s bracing but effective. McAvoy believes an assertive moderator fosters the thoughtful but spontaneous reactions we expect from real discussion. Where stump speeches, campaign stops, and party conventions are staged, filled with spin, and blatantly distorting, the presidential debates should be a towering gauntlet of public scrutiny—a forceful, let’s-get-real sort of moment. In McAvoy’s vision, sharp and persuasive politicians would thrive. Pretenders and spin doctors would be crushed by expert journalism and intelligent debate.
The politico in charge does not buy it, of course. He sees the risk of candidates being called out, of the moderator pressing for more honest answers, of interrupting a politician’s talking point GIF. (A recent example: President Obama’s “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit. As many tech and political reporters observed, the President evaded challenging questions and robo-responded in the kind of unthinking, predictable messaging we expect from the campaign, which is counter to the whole point of the Reddit AMA.)
It suits both parties to have debates that they control. It favors them to have moderators that they choose, and the formats that are uneventful and electorally insignificant. That’s why the official presidential debates are not run by the free press, by a governmental body, or by some public institution. They are run by the two parties. In 1987 they named it the Commission on Presidential Debates.
In his definitive and unforgiving history, No Debate, George Farah documents the creation of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the private organization established and controlled by members of the Republican and Democratic parties. It is the same entity that runs the debates today.
Formed in 1987, the CPD’s first co-chairs, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, were also serving simultaneously as chairs of the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee, respectively. And while the CPD is officially nonpartisan—abiding Federal Election Committee regulations—Farah marshals convincing evidence to prove the CPD is a political cartel.
Using testimony from dozens of journalists (Tom Brokaw, George Will, Tim Russert), scholars (Larry Sabato, Jamie Raskin), and politicos (President George H.W. Bush, George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala) Farah demonstrates the CPD’s dubious neutrality. He quotes Fahrenkopf, the first and current co-chair, in 2001: “It very quickly changed from bipartisan to nonpartisan, and it changed that way for legal reasons.” (The commission is legally obliged to state its goals as nonpartisan, but the two parties working together to exclude dissent is hardly neutral.)
Farah’s second chapter, “Hostile Takeover,” describes how the CPD asserted control. 1976 was the first year the League of Women Voters sponsored the presidential debates. That election pitted a peanut-farmer-turned-governor, Jimmy Carter, against the unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, who had pardoned President Nixon two years prior. With broad civic authority the League maintained strong discretion over the debate format (follow-up questions were mandatory), the selection of moderators, and the response time given to candidates.
The presidential debates of 1980 and 1984 were executed under their sponsorship as well. But in 1988, in a gross display of unimpeded power, the non-partisan League was muscled out. The unsettling October press release explains:
“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates…because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organization aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
Facing onerous demands from the candidates—limited use of follow up questions, absurdly short response times, and a handpicked list of “acceptable” moderators—the League refused to cooperate. Before the first debate began, the moderator Dan Rather announced to the American people:
“This will not be a debate in the sense the word is often used in the English language because all of this is so tightly controlled by the candidates themselves and their managers. These things have developed over the years into what some people believe can more accurately be described as a joint campaign appearance or an orchestrated news conference.”
Rather’s words are striking precisely because they are so apt today. A quick Youtube sampling will refresh your memory. The 2008 moderators attempt to educate the public. They begin by reminding us that their questions were not reviewed by anyone. They tell us what the subject will be and how much time the candidates have to respond. But as soon as the debates begin the sound bites spew out. The rebuttal times seem maddeningly short. Nothing really illuminating or informative or inspiring occurs.
What the moderators don’t tell us is that the debates are designed to be this way. That the moderators themselves are selected by the candidates, that the restrictive response times are put in place to prevent going off message, and that the debate topics are embarrassingly predictable are miserable features of the debates.
At some point, usually very close to the start, the moderator stops being an assertive journalist. They shrink from their role as a representative of the public and shrivel into an impotent emcee—a glorified Ryan Seacrest emitting irrelevant background noise as the candidates spew campaign nonsense and slither from specifics. (At one point during the 2008 town hall debate, as Senators McCain and Obama jostle to respond and verbally stampede over the moderator, Tom Brokaw as if throwing his arms up in despair, exclaims: “I’m just hired help here, so I mean…” crowd erupts in laughter).
Farah outlines his three main criticisms of the CPD: its formats fail to inspire challenging questioning and genuine debate; the scope of debate topics is too narrow; and its rules unfairly exclude popular third party candidates. And for each problem he offers solutions.
After Ross Perot in 1992 proved surprisingly capable of carving a new constituency—peeling off voters from Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush—the commission banned him from the ’96 debates. (In ’92 Perot carried zero electoral votes but received 19% of the popular vote). To avoid accusations of imposing arbitrary restrictions, the CPD instituted a rule in 2000 whereby only candidates polling at 15% or above were invited to debate. Farah explains that while this number may seem fair as an objective metric, it functions as a stifling barrier to entry.
Citing the criteria of the Appleseed Citizen’s Task Force on Fair Debates, a nonprofit public interest law organization, Farah proposes a more inclusive rule where candidates become eligible if they poll above 5% or “register a majority in national polls asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included.” Because more than 200 citizens file to run for president every election, potential candidates must also qualify to be on enough state ballots to theoretically win the election (270 electoral votes). The Appleseed criteria cuts unrealistic candidates from the debates but also empowers worthy, independent voices. (In 2000 both Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan were blocked from the debates by the CPD but would have been allowed under the Appleseed criteria.)
On debate night imagine if, in addition to a moderator, a panel of outspoken journalists, professors, entrepreneurs and cultural figures questioned the candidates (say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Shepard Smith, Sheryl Sandberg, Ira Glass, Richard Branson, David Frum, Rachel Maddow, Colin Powell, Anthony Bourdain, Melinda Gates, and Madeleine Albright). Imagine if the candidates were forced to ask and answer each other’s questions. (In 2004 the commission explicitly forbade them from doing this.) What if voting users—not Fox or CNN producers— decided what YouTube and Reddit questions to ask. This would help drill into rhetorical vagaries and expose precise policy proposals.
Or what about a youth town hall debate, hosted by Jon Stewart and cosponsored by Twitter and BuzzFeed with live-streaming follow-up questions (the kinetic upvoting and retweeting and fact-checking would occur real-time instead of afterwards). The topics and queries would be unscreened and unconventional, forcing the candidates out of the beltway bubble (gay civil rights, carbon tax and climate change, proportional representation, publically funded elections, warrantless wiretapping, college affordability, Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, term limits, marijuana policy, military spending and prison reform).
Farah makes a compelling case for unpredictable, novel formats. They would force candidates to think instead of recite. They would debate instead of word-vomit.
While the first step is to bring attention to the self-serving CPD and its candidate coddling, Farah advocates replacing the CPD with a nonpartisan organization whose explicit goal is to educate the public: The Citizen’s Debate Commission. With mounting intellectual support and the potential for robust engagement from Buzzfeed, Google, Twitter, Branch, Facebook, Tumblr, Wikipedia, and the dozens of innovative media companies that are disrupting journalism’s landscape, how long could the two parties withstand a coordinated protest?
While scholars and politicians have called for reform within the CPD for years, President Obama and Mitt Romney have already entered into a secret agreement with the CPD. Farah’s nonpartisan group Open Debates put out this press release in August:
“Robert F. Bauer of the Obama campaign and Benjamin L. Ginsberg of the Romney campaign negotiated a detailed contract that dictates many of the terms of the 2012 presidential debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates…has agreed to implement the debate contract. In order to shield the major party candidates from criticism, the Commission on Presidential Debates is concealing the contract from the public and the press.”
For 24 years the American public and the legacy media has let this embarrassing trait of our democracy endure. In our age of innovative Web culture, of bewildering connectivity and a heightened awareness of political machinery, will the new social Web allow this to continue? Or are we all content with President Obama’s AMA, where he ducked accountability but let us know that Jordan is his favorite basketball player.