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Published on Sunday, October 1, 2000 in the Boulder Daily Camera
Commission On Presidential Debates:
The Illusion Of Legitimacy
by Jeff Milchen
 
The Daily Camera editorial "Stand up and Debate" (Sept. 7) accurately described the Commission on Presidential Debates as "a creature of the two major parties" and noted its anti-democratic exclusion of candidates from outside of its owners' parties. But inexplicably, the editorial breezed by the point to conclude that the commission's events are "irreplaceable."

Far from irreplaceable, this commission is a cancer on democracy that citizens should abolish and supplant if our nation is to be worthy of the name "democracy."

"We have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of theAmerican people," proclaimed the League of Women Voters in retreating from sponsorship of a scheduled 1988 presidential debate. The League withdrew to protest the Democrats' and Republicans' attempt to dictate every detail — down to camera placement — of the "debates," which now deserve to be called infomercials.

The LWV has not participated since, but was replaced by an entity with no such reservations about subverting democracy — or subjecting viewers to events that make watching professional bowling a more engaging alternative.

To America's disgrace, a private corporation now directs the televised presidential debates. The commission is a joint creation of the Democratic and Republican parties, has — surprise! — created rules that will shut out any thirdparty or independent candidates and displays only its owners' nominees.

Imagine the revolt that would occur if Americans were dictated to choose from only two brands of beer, yet there's barely a murmur over our being denied a choice outside of the two corporate-approved candidates! We should recognize the importance of democratic debate and regain authority over this foundation for informed voting.

The televised debates are the single most influential forum for American voters and offer a rare opportunity to hear candidates' ideas in more than 10-second sound bites. Real debates now have been replaced by — in the commission's own words--nationally televised joint appearances between nominees of the two major political parties." Yet the commission has the nerve to call itself "non-partisan."

The commission effectively decides which candidates we see with no public accountability. Corporations pay the commission's bills, led by Anheuser Busch Inc. buying its own debate — $550,000 for exclusive sponsorship of the upcoming commission event in St. Louis. The corporate sponsors are unlikely to protest the exclusion of candidates questioning, say, the legitimacy of corporations funding political campaigns. Citizens should.

New commission requirements mandate that a candidate possess the expected votes of 15 percent of the public to share a stage with the two dominant parties' candidates — three times the 5 percent threshold parties must meet to receive public election funds. Moreover, the five corporate media polls used to determine support routinely add the option of third-party candidates only after asking whether the respondent supports Bush or Gore — marginalizing other candidateswith the poll itself.

In the previous 40 years, only two candidates from outside the two dominant parties have participated in the presidential debates: John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992. Perot would have been banned from the debates under current criteria, Anderson's eligibility would have depended on the polls chosen.

Though he ran as an independent, in 1980 Anderson was an incumbent Republican congressman with the enormous advantages of 20 years in office — yet he polled only 13 percent to 18 percent just prior to the debates and took 7 percent of the popular vote.

In October 1992, independent candidate Perot polled at 7 to 9 percent prior to the debates, well under the present absurd barriers, but captured more than 19 percent of the popular vote after the debates. His inclusion helped boost voter turnout by a remarkable 12 million from the previous presidential election.

Perot's critique of corporate "free trade" pacts was a vital addition to the cozy bipartisan support, yet the commission excluded him from debates in 1996, labeling him "unelectable." Of course, the power to obscure a candidate makes any such label self-fulfilling; Perot received less than half the votes he did in '92.

The Camera noted viewership statistics for the most recent debates, but somehow neglected to explain why there was an enormous disparity between 1992 and '96. Without a dissenting voice to create real debate, less than half as many Americans watched the 1996 Clinton/Dole snoozefest (average audience of 42 million) as 1992's three-way debates (90 million average) and viewership dropped substantially with each debate while the 1992 debates drew progressively larger audiences.

Jesse Ventura's election as governor of Minnesota in 1998 offers another powerful example. Ventura averaged just 10 percent support in September polls before participating in five televised debates. No major poll identified him as a front-runner.

With over 200 declared presidential candidates, limiting the number of debate participants is essential. But simply requiring that candidates appear on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance to win immediately drops the field to six or seven — numbers that presented no problem for Republicans in their primaries this year. After an initial debate, the field could then reasonably be narrowed with increasingly stringent criteria.

Regardless of one's views on the optimum number of debaters, an unaccountable private corporation has no place controlling this vital part of our democratic process. More than 40 other organizations have extended invitations to presidential candidates to debate — many with a legitimate claim to neutrality that the commission utterly lacks. We should revoke the illusory legitimacy of the commission and replace its duopoly-by-design with a body that will nourish democracy, not subvert it.

Jeff Milchen is the founder of Reclaim Democracy! To make an impact on this issue, visit ReclaimDemocracy.org or call 303-402-0105.

Copyright 2000 The Daily Camera

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