How the GOP and Dems Secretly Control the Presidential Debates

StorySeptember 28, 2004
Watch iconWatch Full Show
Media Options

We examine the rules governing the debates and who controls them. We speak with George Farah, author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Candidates Secretly Control the Presidential Debates and Sue Hilderbrand of the October 13 Alliance which is planning to stage protests outside the October 13th debate at Arizona State University. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush mocked opponent John Kerry at a campaign stop yesterday saying he had shifting his positions on Iraq so many times he could “debate himself” in this week’s face-off between the two candidates.

Kerry responded that Bush has used “scare tactics” to divert attention from the administration’s record and accused the president of failing to level with Americans over Iraq.

The comments come as both candidates are gearing up for the first presidential debate this Thursday in Coral Gables, Florida. The focus of the debate will be foreign affairs, and some analysts say the face-off may be pivotal to the outcome of the election in November.

Voters across the country are looking forward to Bush and Kerry finally squaring off face to face in a debate, but what exactly are the rules governing presidential debates and who controls them?

  • George Farah, executive director and founder of the organization Open Debates. He is author of the new book No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Candidates Secretly Control the Presidential Debates.
  • Sue Hilderbrand, organizer with the October 13 Alliance, a coalition of over 20 Phoenix-area groups who are planning to stage protests outside the October 13th debate at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Related Story

Video squareStoryMay 20, 2015Sgt. James Brown, 26, Survived Two Tours in Iraq Only to Die Begging for His Life in Texas Jail
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: George Farah is with us on the telephone. He’s executive director and founder of the organization Open Debates. He’s author of the new book, No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Candidates Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. Welcome to Democracy Now!, George.

GEORGE FARAH: Thank you for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you start off by talking about how it works, who gets to debate, and what the rules are?

GEORGE FARAH: Well, every four years, the Republican and Democratic candidates assemble a team of negotiators that are sufficiently talented to broker international peace accords. This year it was James Baker heading the Republican team and Vernon Jordan heading the Democratic team. And these negotiators, behind closed doors in Washington, draft a secret debate contract called the Memorandum of Understanding that dictates precisely how the debates will be structured. Who will participate, who will ask the questions, whether there will be follow-up questions, whether the town hall audience’s questions have to be prescreened by the moderator. They hand the document to an organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates which obediently implements every stipulation of the contract. Why? Because the commission, which masquerades as a non-partisan sponsor was created by the Republican and Democratic parties for the Republican and Democratic parties. The commission was created in 1986 after the parties ratified an agreement to “take over the presidential debates.” It’s co-shared by Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk. These two individuals are the former heads of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. And this organization was created because the League of Women Voters, which used to host the debates, actually had the guts to criticize the candidates and fought to include challengers.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about what the rules are right now. What have they agreed to, the rules of engagement or disengagement, if you will.

GEORGE FARAH: In the upcoming presidential debates, the candidates cannot even ask each other questions or talk to each other. They have no more than 90 seconds to 120 seconds to answer a question, so they’re just reciting their memorized sound bite. They have vetted all of the moderators. There’s limited use of follow-up questions. The town hall audience, for example, has to submit their questions in advance, on index cards to the moderator. The moderator throws out the questions he or she doesn’t like. Then points to the individual in the audience who he or she wants to ask the question according to a seating chart. If the person in the audience asks a question that in any way deviates from the question he submits in advance, the town hall moderator can cut him off and move on the next question. The town hall audience is not really there to ask questions, they’re just there as props. The moderator is still choosing the questions. You end up with a debate in which the candidates are reciting a series of memorized sound bites to fit cute 90-second response slots. They cannot speak to each other. They’re not going to get tough questions because they have selected all the questioners. It’s not really debating — it’s a glorified bipartisan press conference. And of course, all third party voices will excluded as they have been in the last three election cycles, because the candidates just don’t want anybody else on that stage.

AMY GOODMAN: The town hall meeting format that you are talking about will just be used in St. Louis. In Florida, the whole issue of what — the camera is not allowed to get the response of the opposing candidate, and the opposing candidate, whoever that is, when the other is talking, is not allowed to speak. Is that right? Not allowed to give any responses.

GEORGE FARAH: Oh, yes, absolutely right. There’s all of the little detailed rules that these brilliant lawyers behind closed doors have negotiated in the 32-page contract, which is absolutely ridiculous, that are related to experiences in history. In none of these debates can a camera have a shot of an opponent while one of these candidates is speaking. Why is that? Because in 1992, President George H. W. Bush, President Bush’s father, was caught looking at his watch during a town hall debate, which really reinforced the notion then being propagated by Democrats that he was out of touch with the American people. It was a huge slip-up. As a result, his son has required that there would be no camera shot angles in the debates. There’s a bunch of these rules. For instance, this is the first time that the public will actually see timer lights showing how much time is left in the candidate’s response. They will actually see colored lights, changing colors as the candidate’s response time shrinks in the 120- or 90-second response. It looks like a game show. What’s the important behind this? The Bush people are convinced that Kerry is verbose and is likely to exceed his allotted time regulations, and they want to show the American people that Kerry does not know how to follow the rules.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to George Farah, executive director and founder of the organization, Open Debates. He has written the book, No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Candidates Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. Joining us in our Phoenix studio is Sue Hilderbrand, organizer of the October 13 Alliance, a coalition of some 20 Phoenix-area groups that are planning to stage protests outside the October 13 debates that will be held here in Tempe, Arizona. Welcome to Democracy Now!, as we talk also with George Farah. Why are you protesting?

SUE HILDERBRAND: Well, we are protesting for exactly the reasons that Mr. Farah has discussed. We’re very skeptical that the real issues that the American people would like to hear — we want to know what the candidates really believe, for example, about these multilateral trade agreements, but we’re pretty convinced they’re not going to discuss these things. So that’s where our protest comes in.

AMY GOODMAN: What will you exactly be doing?

SUE HILDERBRAND: Well, we’re not only going to protest. We’re going to have a march on the day of the debate, which is the 13th, but we’re also having the alternative forum, and we have invited various people, Medea Benjamin and Norman Solomon and other people, to be involved in an alternative debate to talk about the real issues that are happening in Iraq that are not going to happen. We also have the Free For All Market, which is sort of a play on the neo-liberal model of free markets that will raise people out of poverty, so we are going to have a day of completely give-away markets where everyone can bring stuff to be given away, and you can take with you need and you can leave what you no longer need.

AMY GOODMAN: You are in a very conservative area of the country, Phoenix. What kind of response do you think you will get as the nation’s spotlight is on Phoenix for these debates, Phoenix and Tempe?

SUE HILDERBRAND: It is a very conservative area, which is why it’s been a little difficult to organize these kinds of things. But we have been very successful in mobilizing the local organizations and crossing ideological divides between the various groups that have joined the coalition. We have been very successful in reaching out to the grassroots organizers in Tucson and Flagstaff and Prescot, and we think we’ll have a good turnout. We have gotten a lot of interest from California, for people to come not only for the protest on the day of the debate but also the forum and the market, and the music festival.

AMY GOODMAN: George Farah, you talked about who gets included in these debates. Can you talk about the third party candidates? Ralph Nader recently gave a speech where he talked about the dirty tricks of the Democrats keeping him off the ballot, where they successfully have in a number of states. One of the places a fierce battle took place to get on the ballot was right here in Arizona.

GEORGE FARAH: Third party candidates confront the most discriminatory ballot access laws in the world. They get scant media coverage, they have massive funding disparities with the major-party candidates who get corporate donations and obviously some public funding. It’s an extraordinarily difficult place to be as a third party challenger in the United States of America, which is a shame because third party candidates have raised crucial issues that have been co-opted by the major parties. They raise the issue, they attract popular support, and the major parties steal them. Third party candidates are responsible for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, public schools, public power, minimum wage, direct election of Senators, Social Security, unemployment compensation, the child labor laws. The list goes on and on. And when we exclude these individuals, particularly when a majority of eligible voters want to see them, from the most important public forums of the American people, you are also excluding their groundbreaking issue and preventing them from breaking the bipartisan conspiracy of silence on certain critical issues like the free trade agreements that Sue is mentioning. In 1996, the perfect example, Ross Perot had $29 million in public financing. Three-quarters of the American people wanted to see him. He was talking about manufacturing jobs lost to the trade agreements and lobbyists manipulating Washington. But he was excluded because Bob Dole and Bill Clinton hatched a deal to keep him out. Dole desperately wanted Perot excluded because he thought that Perot would take more votes away from him. Clinton wanted the smallest possible audience for the debates because he was winning by so many points in the polls. They hatched an agreement and as a result, Perot was excluded, one debate was canceled, and the remaining two debates were deliberately scheduled opposite the World Series, producing the smallest audience in history.

AMY GOODMAN: Sue Hilderbrand, if people want to find out about the protests that you will be holding here in the Phoenix area, where can they go on the web?

SUE HILDERBRAND: We do have a website. It’s

AMY GOODMAN: Do you get attacked by Democrats as well as Republicans saying that this is an absolutely critical year, you should hold your protest until after the election?

SUE HILDERBRAND: Not really. We have a lot of progressive Democrats that have gotten involved in our coalition. They’re working very hard. The Arizona Progressive Democratic Caucus is involved in our organization.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. George Farah, author of No Debate, and Sue Hilderbrand, with the October 13 Alliance.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

Sgt. James Brown, 26, Survived Two Tours in Iraq Only to Die Begging for His Life in Texas Jail

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation
Up arrowTop