Last week, Open Debates (see Opendebates.org), a nonprofit, non-partisan organization, whose purposes I support, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) against the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) which was created and is controlled by the Republican and Democratic Parties. Open Debates charged, with documentation, that the CPD is not non-partisan but is deeply bi-partisan, serving and obeying the dictates of the two major Parties.
Open Debates argues that such control is a violation of FEC debate regulations. Corporate contributions which could go only to an educational association are instead going to a bi-partisan political organization which is unlawful.
A new, non-partisan Citizens Debate Commission (CDC) has been established by Open Debates with a Board of Directors composed of conservative, liberal and moderate representatives. The CDC is not under the control of any candidates or any parties. It serves an educational function to sponsor rigorous debates with exciting third party or independent candidates participating.
This entry criteria is not easy but it is possible, unlike the CPD’s mountainous hurdle, required in 2000, of averaging 15% voter support in 5 national polls in September. Even Ross Perot, who got on the debates in 1992 and received 19 million votes, did not come close to reaching a 15% level in September of that year.
The new Debate Commission’s criteria are that a candidate must be on enough states’ ballots to be able theoretically to win the electoral college, and must either garner 5% voter support or be supported by a majority ofcitizens in polls who want him/her to be on the Presidential debates.
Open Debates had a news conference on February 19th at the National Press Club (carried by C-Span) where directors of the Citizen Debate Commission spoke their mind on the necessity to open up the debate process to vital issues and differing views by more than two major party candidates. In 2000, candidates Bush and Gore set a debate record for agreeing with one another.
All the speakers, Paul Weyrich, Alan Keyes, Kert Davies and Rob Richie provided their unique elaborations for the benefits to the voters, their vital issues, and voter turnout from more diverse debates and more flexible debate formats. The existing CPD debate formats are really parallel interviews by one questioner, and not really debates.
There is an additional importance. The debates are overwhelmingly the only major way candidates, without big money and television ads, can reach the American people. Indeed, even with the big-money candidates it is presently the only way that any positions or rebuttals can be communicated apart from soundbite journalism on television. The major nominees usually do not like to give long interviews to the press or go on radio.
My nephew, Tarek Milleron, while thinking about this debate subject, came up with a sterling idea. The CPD stonewalls all criticisms and challenges (although a new book-length expose by George Farah may flush it out soon). So Milleron proposes tens of thousands of proxy debates all over the country — in schools, universities, Elks Clubs, union halls, chambers of commerce, forums by the League of Women Voters, the Junior League Civic and neighborhood associations. People would volunteer to stand in for the Presidential candidates, under cross-questioning debate formats. The internet can help find these proxies. National sponsors can offer user-friendly debate manuals, prizes and other incentives that bring the betterdebates beyond their auditoriums to websites with larger audiences.
High school and college debate teams should pick this idea up readily on a national scale. They are already trained and ready to go. The point is not an occasional debate here and there which probably goes on, but a large number of debates everywhere in the country with a national focus. His proposal would be a great educational mechanism to inform and animate voters and bring them to the polls in greater numbers. It would also help to diversify the issues and broaden the subject matter and solutions to our problems which are deserving of attention by those Presidential candidates on the ballot.
Usually, presidential contests between the two major parties narrow the number of repeated disagreements, however, rhetorical to a half dozen or less. This cul de sac campaign shortchanges the many matter that are left out. Also excluded are the many people, whose on the ground innovations, for example, in education, tax reform, energy, public transit, health care, civil and criminal justice, childhood nurturing, recycling, consumer rights, workplace conditions and more effective foreign policy and defense call out for attention and diffusion.
Milleron’s proposal is very cost-effective; but it needs a new level of voter will power to participate in the upcoming Presidential election not just accede to a spectator role. Should these mini-debates proliferate, the Citizens Debate Commission will be on its way to displacing the stagnant, arrogant corporate-sponsored, corporation known as the Commission on Presidential Debates.