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No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates

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The Obama and McCain campaigns jointly negotiated a detailed secret contract dictating the terms of all the 2008 debates. This includes who gets to participate, as well as the topics raised during the debates. We speak to Open Debates founder and executive director George Farah. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tonight, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri will host the first and only vice-presidential debate between Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Delaware Senator Joseph Biden. The debate will be moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS.

Senator McCain and Governor Palin have been sowing doubts about how fair Ifill will be because of a book she’s writing that’s called Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. The McCain campaign and right-wing pundits allege that Ifill might be biased in favor of Senator Obama.

What’s missing, however, is any concern about the fairness of the very structure of the debate. The Obama and McCain campaigns jointly negotiated a detailed contract dictating the terms of all the 2008 debates. This includes who gets to participate, as well as the topics raised during the debates. But the contract remains a secret, and the Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation created by the two major parties, has refused to release the contract to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Open Debates is a nonprofit committed to democratizing the presidential debate process. Last month, Open Debates and nine other pro-democracy groups called on the Commission to make the contract public.

George Farah is the founder and executive director of Open Debates, author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates, joining us from Washington, D.C.

So, George, well, what are these rules tonight? What will they abide by, and who is making them?

GEORGE FARAH: Unfortunately, Amy, we don’t know the extent of the rules, because, precisely because, the Obama and McCain campaigns have absolutely refused to release the detailed contract that dictates the terms of tonight’s debate. We only have limited knowledge.

With respect to the new rules that we do know about, because the campaigns are terrified that both Biden and Palin will make a major gaffe during tonight’s performance, they have severely restricted the response times, so each candidate only has ninety seconds to respond to a particular question and then, only two minutes afterwards, to have some sort of discussion. This is in sharp contrast to the amount of time that was given to Obama and McCain during their debate.

And, of course, Amy, you’re not going to see any third party voices in tonight’s debate. The Republican, Democratic parties, who exert near absolute control over these public forums, have determined and made sure that no third party voices are ever seen on the debate stage and can challenge their dominance of our political system.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, walk us through how we got to this stage, who originally was sponsoring these debates years back, and how this secretive nonprofit organization gained control of them.

GEORGE FARAH: We used to have a fantastic, genuinely nonpartisan presidential debate sponsor: the League of Women Voters. From 1976 until 1984, the League of Women Voters hosted our most important public forums, and they made sure the debates served the public interest rather than the interest of any political party. And they had the guts to stand up to the two major parties.

In 1980, for example, former Republican Congressman John Anderson ran as an Independent for the president of the United States. President Jimmy Carter adamantly refused to debate him, but the League said, “You know what, Mr. President? Too bad.” And they hosted a presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and John Anderson that was watched by over 40 million people.

Fast-forward four years later, the Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan campaigns actually vetoed sixty-eight of the moderators that the League of Women Voters had proposed for the three debates. What did the League do? They issued a scathing public press release castigating the candidates for abusing the process, and the Reagan and Mondale campaigns were forced to accept aggressive moderators.

Again, four years later, the League of Women Voters were refusing to implement any contract that was negotiated by the George Bush and Dukakis campaigns. They had negotiated the first secret contract, a twelve-page memoranda of understanding, that dictated who would participate and how the format would be structured. The League said, “This is an outrage!”

AMY GOODMAN: You mean that that was longer than the initial proposal for the $700 billion bailout?

GEORGE FARAH: Nine pages longer. And they absolutely refused to implement the contract. Well, guess what. The parties did not like the fact that an uppity women’s organization, pro-democracy, was telling their boys who could participate in their debates and under what condition. And so, in 1987, they created this private corporation called the Commission on Presidential Debates. It sounds like a government agency; it’s not. And every four years, it awards absolute control to the Republican and Democratic parties over our political forums.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And who sponsors this organization?

GEORGE FARAH: Well, that makes things even worse. Unfortunately, much of the money that finances the presidential debates that are hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates are private corporations that have regulatory interests before Congress. Anheuser-Busch has spent the most money of any company in the United States on presidential debates, which is partly why every four years we get a debate in St. Louis, and we don’t have a debate this year in New Orleans, which is dying for a debate, and massive civic groups were demanding that a debate be held there to highlight some of Katrina’s problems.

Another consequence of corporate sponsorship is that the corporations are able to give a contribution this way to both parties. You know, we have limitations in this country. Corporations can’t give direct contributions to the candidates. Well, the Commission provides an end-run around. When a corporation gives money to the Commission on Presidential Debates, it knows it is giving money to both the Republican and Democratic parties, supporting their duopoly over our political process and excluding third party voices that may be hostile to corporate power. And all four third party candidates that are on ballots this year are sharply critical of growing corporate power.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the co-chairs of the Commission?

GEORGE FARAH: Well, you’ve got Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk. These guys have run this presidential debate process for twenty years. They first incorporated in 1988. At the time, Amy, they were the heads of the Republican and Democratic parties. And they still — they still run our presidential debates.

And it shouldn’t be surprising that these guys are willing to sacrifice the integrity of the political process to serve partisan or private interest, because they’re registered lobbyists. Paul Kirk has lobbied on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry. And Frank Fahrenkopf is the nation’s leading gambling lobbyist; he is the president of the American Gaming Association. These are the guys deciding who gets to participate in the most important political forums in the United States of America.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, there have been occasions when a third party candidate did get in. Obviously, Ross Perot managed to get in some of the debates back in ’92. Now, what have they been doing in terms of that?

GEORGE FARAH: Well, Juan, in 1992, the only reason Ross Perot got in the presidential debates is because the candidates refused to exclude him. That’s it. If the candidates had wanted him out, if Bill Clinton had wanted him out, he would have been out.

Four years later, though, when Ross Perot ran again, he was polling exactly the amount he was polling prior to the debates in 1992; he was polling at nine percent. He had $36 million in taxpayer funds. And yet, he was excluded. Why? Because behind closed doors, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole struck a deal.

Bill Clinton agreed to exclude Perot as long as Bob Dole agreed that there would be only two debates instead of three debates, that they would abolish follow-up questions, and that they would schedule those debates opposite the World Series. Bill Clinton was winning by about twenty points in the polls, and he didn’t want anyone watching these debates or any difficult questions challenging his authority.

And that’s exactly what happened. Perot was excluded, despite $35 million in taxpayer funds. The debates were held opposite the World Series, resulting in the lowest viewership ever. No follow-up questions. Only two debates. And the American people had no idea, because the Commission on Presidential Debates secretly implemented the contract and took all the flak.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to look how the two major party presidential nominees talk about the financial crisis and the Treasury’s $700 billion bailout and how the third party candidates address the issue. Let’s begin with an excerpt from the first presidential debate last Friday between Senator McCain and Senator Obama.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Number one, we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got oversight over this whole process. $700 billion potentially is a lot of money. Number two, we’ve got to make sure that taxpayers, when they are putting their money at risk, have the possibility of getting that money back and gains if the market and when the market returns.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We have finally seen Republicans and Democrats sitting down and negotiating together and coming up with a package. This package has transparency in it, options for loans to failing businesses, rather than the government taking over those loans. We have to — it has to have a package with a number of other essential elements to it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the two major presidential party candidates agree on the bailout. Now, let’s listen to some of the other presidential candidates who were not included in Friday’s debate, what they had to say about the bailout. This is Libertarian presidential nominee Bob Barr.

    BOB BARR: Now we have the federal government, the Bush administration, coming to us, the taxpayers of this country, and saying, “We want you to bail us out of the problem that we’ve created over the last ten years.” You open the door to this, you throw open wide the barn doors here, this raid on the federal Treasury, this raid on the taxpayers of this country, you’ll know for a fact that it will happen again and again and again. Already, others are lining up. The automobile industry is already lining up for its bailout. The Republican and the Democratic parties are complicit not only in causing this problem through their bad policies, their bad legislation, but also in proposing this bogus solution to the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bob Barr, Libertarian candidate for president. We also interviewed Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader last week. This is some of what he had to say.

    RALPH NADER: It’s not clear at all why a bailout is needed. That’s part of the stampede in the pack and the panic that Bush and Paulson and Bernanke are pushing Congress toward. You know, it’s eerily reminiscent, when you listen to Bush yesterday, of how he stampeded the Congress and the country into the criminal war invasion of Iraq in 2003. I mean, look at all his statements: this could do this, this would do that, farms failing, small business, tada, tada. The first question we have to ask as citizens is, why is there a need for a bailout?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ralph Nader. And finally, this is Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney talking about the bailout.

    CYNTHIA McKINNEY: First of all, we need a moratorium on foreclosures. Secondly, we need to renegotiate all adjustable-rate mortgages into thirty- or forty-year loans. We also need to make sure that we redefine credit so that credit can work for small business owners and individuals and not against them. We also need accountability in the system — openness, transparency and accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: George Farah, it sounds like it would be a very different debate about the most important issues of the day, if these third party candidates were included.

GEORGE FARAH: Absolutely, Amy. Thank you so much for highlighting the significance of third party inclusion. There is no doubt that often the Republican and Democratic parties take positions, in large part due to the corporate interests that finance their campaigns, that are directly at odds with the opinions of either the majority of Americans or tens of millions of Americans. And these debates, which are designed to inform voters so they can make substantive decisions, should be airing the ideas that are supported by the vast majority of Americans that the two major parties are excluding.

And historically, that is the role that third parties have played. Historically, it has been third parties, not the major parties, that have supported and are responsible for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, public schools, public power, unemployment compensation, minimum wage, child labor laws. The list goes on and on. The two parties fail to address a particular issue; a third party rises up, and it’s supported by tens of millions of Americans, forcing the Republican and Democratic parties to co-opt that issue, or the third party rises and succeeds, which is why the Republican Party jumped from being a third party to being a major party of the United States of America.

When you exclude third parties from the election process, third parties that the vast majority of Americans would like to see in the presidential debates, you’re not only denying those people the right to choose who they want to run for president and who they want to vote for, but you’re denying the very fundamental and critical issues that, in a generative democracy, we need to have aired in from of tens of millions of voters.

AMY GOODMAN: George Farah, I want to thank you for being with us. Your website?

GEORGE FARAH: Opendebates.org. I’d appreciate if if everyone took a peek at it. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: George Farah, executive director and founder of Open Debates, author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates.

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