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As Obama, Romney Hold First Debate, Behind the Secret GOP-Dem Effort to Shut Out Third Parties

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As President Obama and Mitt Romney prepare to square off in Denver, Colorado, tonight, we look at how the Democrats and Republicans manage to shut out all third parties from the presidential debates. The Obama and Romney campaigns have secretly negotiated a detailed contract that dictates many of the terms of the 2012 presidential debates. This includes who gets to participate, as well as the topics raised during the debates. We’re joined by George Farah, founder and executive director of Open Debates, and author of the book, “No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting in Denver, Colorado. We’re on the road here, just miles from the University of Denver, the site of tonight’s presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama. It’s the first of three presidential debates before the November 6 election. Tonight’s debate will focus on domestic policy.

But one issue that will not be covered is the actual structure of the debate itself. The Obama and Romney campaigns have secretly negotiated a detailed contract that dictates many of the terms of the 2012 presidential debates. This includes who gets to participate, as well as the topics raised during the debates. Now 18 pro-democracy groups are calling on the Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation that runs the debates, to reveal the details of the negotiated agreement. Meanwhile, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, has filed an antitrust lawsuit for entry to the debates against the Commission on Presidential Debates. In addition, supporters of Green Party nominee Jill Stein plan to protest outside the debate under the banner of “Occupy the CPD.”

While Obama and Romney debate in Denver, Stein and Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson will appear on Democracy Now!'s “Expanding the Debate” exclusive tonight. We will air the Obama-Romney debate, pausing after questions to include equal time responses from Dr. Stein and Rocky Anderson. We invited Gary Johnson, but his campaign said he had other plans for the night. Our special begins at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time. If it's not being broadcast on your station and it’s as it’s being broadcast throughout the country, you can also go to our website at

To talk more about the debates, we’re joined now in New York by George Farah. He’s the founder and executive director of Open Debates, the author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates.

George, welcome to Democracy Now!, though it’s interesting you’re there in our studios in New York, and we are here, well, just outside Denver, where the debates are taking place tonight, so we can bring folks, well, an expanded version of the debates. George, how did it come to be that the Commission [on] Presidential Debates came into being? What is this commission?

GEORGE FARAH: Well, the commission, the Commission on Presidential Debates, sounds like a government agency. It sounds like a nonpartisan entity, which is by design. It’s intended to deceive the American people. But in reality, it’s a private corporation, financed primarily by Anheuser-Busch and other major companies, that was created by the Republican and Democratic parties to seize control of the presidential debates from the League of Women Voters in 1987. And precisely as you said, Amy, every four years, this commission allows the major-party campaigns to meet behind closed doors and draft a secret contract, a memorandum of understanding that dictates many of the terms.

The reason for the commission’s creation is that the previous sponsor, the League of Women Voters, was a genuine nonpartisan entity, our voice, the voice of the American people, in the negotiation room, and time and time again, the League had the courage to stand up to the Republican and Democratic campaigns to insist on challenging and creative formats, to insist on the inclusion of independent candidates that the vast majority of the American people wanted to see, and most importantly, to insist on transparency, so that any attempts by the Republican and Democratic parties to manipulate the presidential debates would pay—would result in an enormous political price. And it’s precisely because the League—

AMY GOODMAN: George, you have a lot of—you have a lot of time here, so I really want you to lay out how this happened. Explain the moment when this was taken out of the hands of the League of Women Voters and this commission was formed. How was this justified?

GEORGE FARAH: The best part of the history starts in 1980. In 1980, John B. Anderson, an independent candidate for president, runs against President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. President Jimmy Carter absolutely opposed independent candidate John Anderson’s participation in the presidential debates, and the League had a choice: do they support the independent candidate’s participation and defy the wishes of the president of the United States, or do they capitulate to the demands of President Jimmy Carter? The League did the right thing: it stood up to the president of the United States, invited John B. Anderson. The president refused to show up. The League went forward anyway and had a presidential debate that was watched by 55 million Americans.

You fast-forward four years later, Amy, and the Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan campaigns vetoed 80 of the moderators that the League of Women Voters had proposed for the debates. They were simply trying to get rid of—


GEORGE FARAH: Eighty. They were trying to get rid of difficult questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Eight-zero?

GEORGE FARAH: Eight-zero, 80. And the League didn’t just, you know, say, “OK, that’s fine, we’ll allow you to select a moderator that’s going to ask softball questions.” The League held a press conference and lambasted the campaigns for trying to get rid of difficult questions. And, of course, there was a public outcry. So the League marshaled public support to criticize the campaigns when they attempted to defy our democratic process, and the result was fantastic. For the next debate, the campaigns were required to accept the League’s proposed moderators, for fear of an additional public outcry.

And you fast-forward four more years later, and you have the Michael Dukakis and the George Bush campaigns, the Republican and Democratic nominees, drafting the first-ever 12-page secret debate contract. They gave it to the League of Women Voters and said, “Please implement this.” And the League said, “Are you kidding me? We’re not going to implement a secret contract that dictates the terms of the format.” Instead, they released the contract to the public, and they held a press conference accusing the candidates of, quote, “perpetrating a fraud on the American people,” end-quote, and refusing to be — this is another quote — “an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American people.”

Well, Amy, conveniently, just a year earlier, the Republican and Democratic parties had ratified an agreement to, quote, “take over the presidential debates.” And they created this artifice, this commission, and the commission was waiting in the wings and stepped right in and implemented the very same 12-page contract that the League had so effectively denounced. And ever since, we have a contract.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us what—since the League did release it, the League of Women Voters at the time, what was in this 12-page contract, at least then?

GEORGE FARAH: The 12-page contract then said very specific provisions that the candidates cannot actually ask each other any questions during the debates, that no third-party candidates will be permitted to participate in those events, that there will be a certain member of audience members who will be supporters of the various candidates. Actually, it’s quite tame compared to the contracts that we’ve seen in recent years. That contract was 12 pages. The 2004 contract that we’ve managed to obtain a copy of was 32 pages. So, over time, the candidates have made even greater efforts to control various components of the debates to eliminate both third-party candidates, unpredictable questions, and any threat to their dominance in our political process.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this commission, talk about the heads of the commission and who they are, who they were when it started—Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk—and who they are today, and who they represent.

GEORGE FARAH: Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk were the original co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Frank Fahrenkopf is the former chair of the Republican Party, and Paul Kirk is the former chair of the Democratic Party. And when they created the commission, for 15 months they simultaneously served as co-chairs of their respective parties and the commission, so it was of course, by definition, an entity that was absolutely loyal to the two parties.

Well, guess what. Frank Fahrenkopf still is co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, decades later. And he has one other job, his day job: he is the director of the American Gaming Association. In other words, he is the nation’s leading gambling lobbyist. When I asked Frank, “Hey, do you feel comfortable having beer and tobacco companies paying for our most important election events, our presidential debates?” He said, “Boy, you’re talking to the wrong guy. I represent the gambling industry.” The other co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates now is Mike McCurry, former press secretary to Bill Clinton and also a lobbyist. He’s lobbied aggressively on behalf of the telecommunications industry.

So you have two people in charge of these presidential debates that, number one, are loyal to their parties—they’re political operatives—and, number two, have demonstrated time and time again a willingness to sacrifice the interests of the American people for private, political and financial interests. These are not exactly people who hesitate to subjugate the willingness—the democratic process to the private interests that benefit from these actual debates.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what happened this past week, George Farah? The advertising agency BBH, the YWCA, Philips North America, terminating their sponsorship of the debates. First of all, what are corporations doing sponsoring these presidential debates? And why have these organizations pulled out?

GEORGE FARAH: Well, the Commission on Presidential Debates gets the vast majority of its money from major businesses that support it. Anheuser-Busch is by far and away the biggest contributor to the commission. So, by and large, our presidential debates are brought to you by Bud Light. And if you actually go to some of these debate sites—I don’t know how it is this year, but in the past there have been Anheuser-Busch tents, where scantily clad women are passing out pamphlets denouncing beer taxes. The CEOs of these companies get access to the debates. They sit in the audience. They’re invited to receptions to meet with campaign staff. They get a wonderful benefit, because they’re able to simultaneously demonstrate their support for both major parties, hit two birds with one stone, and get a tax deduction to boot. Back when the League of Women Voters used to sponsor these events, they struggled, Amy, to raise $5,000 contributions from companies. It was very difficult. But because they’re now perceived as a sort of soft money donation, this is yet another avenue for businesses with regulatory interests before Congress to influence our political process.

Well, we’ve launched a campaign since the inception of my organization in 2004 pushing our supporters, which number in the tens of thousands, to write letters and emails to the various sponsors, demanding that they withdraw their support of the commission. This year, with the support of other organizations, one called Help the Commission, an infusion of enthusiasm from third parties, including the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, for the first time ever we actually have succeeded in achieving some tangible goals. Not just one sponsor, but three of the 10 sponsors have withdrawn support: BBH, a British advertising agency; YWCA, a nonprofit; and most importantly, Philips Electronics, a tech giant. Due to the extraordinary public pressure that we have exerted on them, they have said, “We will no longer be affiliated with an entity that is perceived” — correctly — “as being partisan and fundamentally anti-democratic.” This is a triumph for the debate reform movement and, I hope, the beginning of unveiling the commission for what it truly is and displacing it.

AMY GOODMAN: George Farah, say again the companies that continue to support the presidential commission—the Commission on Presidential Debates?

GEORGE FARAH: There are seven remaining sponsors. There are three companies: Anheuser-Busch, again the poster child for contributing to the commission, you have Southwest Airlines, you have the International Bottled Water Association. Then you have two foundations, the Howard Buffett Foundation—Howard Buffett happens to be a board member of the commission—something called the Marjorie Kovler Fund that’s affiliated with the Kennedy Library. And then you have two law firms: [Crowell and Moring], a specific law firm that focuses on specific issues in Washington, and Sheldon Cohen, a national security lawyer. These are the seven entities that are backing our Commission on Presidential Debates. This is not the way these ought to be run. These should be supported by civic groups, nonpartisan organizations with a real focus on the democratic process. And instead, they’re subcontracting out our presidential debate process to Anheuser-Busch.

AMY GOODMAN: It will be interesting to see if there’s bottled water on their podiums or if there’s Bud Light. I mean, who knows? But I wanted to go to one of the third-party candidates shut out of tonight’s debate, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. He appeared recently on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox Business.

NEIL CAVUTO: Governor, half the battle is getting on those ballots and polling well to get in those debates. So, it’s sort of like a tough—

GARY JOHNSON: Very catch-22. I mean, right now I’m 5 percent nationally. Fact is, I’m not being recognized, though, at 5 percent nationally. And if people recognized that I was at 5 percent nationally, Neil, the overwhelming reaction would be, “Well, who the hell is Gary Johnson?”

NEIL CAVUTO: What does it take to get in—yeah, what does it take to get into the debates?

GARY JOHNSON: Well, you’ve got to get in the polls first to determine who’s in the debates.

AMY GOODMAN: And earlier this summer, the Green Party wrapped up its convention with the nomination of its presidential candidate, the physician, Dr. Jill Stein, and her running mate, the anti-poverty activist, Cheri Honkala. Stein called her ticket a viable third-party challenge to corporate-beholden Republicans and Democrats.

DR. JILL STEIN: I strongly agree that grassroots democracy grows from the local community up. But at the same time, we have a state of emergency, I think, at the national level. And to silence the only hope of an opposition voice in this election, when so much is at stake, I think, would be just a terrible loss for the American people. There is no reason why Americans should have to walk into the voting booth in November and have only, effectively, two Wall Street-sponsored choices.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein. Democracy Now! spoke to Justice Party presidential nominee Rocky Anderson during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, last month.

ROCKY ANDERSON: These two parties, Republicans and Democrats, have a stranglehold on our democracy. They are depriving people around this country not only of being able to get on the ballot. They’re denying all us of our freedom of choice. And we’re seeing it in the most oppressive ways.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, again, we are going to have this presidential debate, including Rocky Anderson, the presidential candidate from the Justice Party, Dr. Jill Stein, the presidential candidate from the Green Party. We will be doing that tonight, expanding the debates, just having them not comment afterwards, but actually they will participate in the debate. We’ll just hit pause on the presidential debate. They will be given the same amount of time in the same format as the main presidential candidates, so that TV and radio and internet audience at can hear what democracy sounds like.

George Farah, there was a third-party candidate, outside of Anderson, of course, George Perot—sorry, Ross Perot. But—so, George, how did he get into these debates? Why was it agreed then?

GEORGE FARAH: Amy, the Ross Perot story is absolutely fascinating, and I’d love to talk briefly about 1992 and 1996. Ross Perot managed to get into the 1992 presidential debates. And one of the great public misconceptions is that the commission invited him. The commission loves to take credit for it, as well. They say, “Look, we are not as bipartisan or as partisan as people accuse us of being. We included Ross Perot in 1992.” That’s not what happened. President George H.W. Bush believed, strategically, that Ross Perot was taking votes from then-challenger Bill Clinton. And so, Perot’s—Bush’s campaign insisted on Ross Perot’s inclusion. The commission actually opposed Perot’s inclusion, first pushing to keep him out of all three debates, then lobbying for allowing him to participate in just a single debate. It was only because President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton pushed for Perot’s inclusion that he was included.

If you fast-forward four years later, Ross Perot ran for president again. He had $29 million in taxpayer funds. Seventy-six percent of the American people wanted to see him in the presidential debates. He was widely deemed the winner of two of the three debates in 1992, yet he was excluded. Why? Because this time the candidates wanted to keep him out. Bob Dole was desperate to keep Perot out of the presidential debates, because he thought Perot would take more votes away from him. And Bill Clinton didn’t want anyone to watch these debates. He wanted what George Stephanopoulos told me was a non-event, because he was comfortably leading in the polls. So they reached an outrageous agreement: Bill Clinton agreed to exclude Perot on the condition that one of the three debates was canceled, and the remaining two debates were scheduled opposite the World Series of baseball, and no follow-up questions were asked. So this is what viewers at home got. They got not Perot, they got two debates at the same time as baseball, and they had no follow-up questions—and, as exactly what President Bill Clinton wanted, by design, the lowest debate audience in the history of presidential debates.

And who took the heat? Not the candidates. The candidates never paid a political price. The polls after the debate showed the 50 percent of the public blamed the commission. Only 13 percent blamed President Clinton, and only 5 percent blamed Bob Dole. In other words, the critical role the commission plays is allowing the candidates to engage in anti-democratic manipulations behind closed doors without having to pay a political price. If Bob Dole and Bill Clinton had to look in the camera, look and tell the American people, “We’re going to keep a candidate out that you’re paying for, that you’re supporting and that you want to see,” they would never have had the courage to do so. They would have—it would have been perceived as cowardly, and they would have been forced to allow Ross Perot on that stage.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this comment that Gary Johnson made, the former governor of New Mexico who’s running for president on the Libertarian line, this point about what you poll and the—this catch-22 of how do you increase your standing in the polls if you’re not in the debates?

GEORGE FARAH: Due to explicit criticism of the commission in 1992 and 1996 and an investigation by the Federal Election Commission, the commission was forced to adopt a numerical figure as a kind of decision making at what point third-party candidates could actually be allowed to participate in the presidential debates. So they have announced that if a third-party candidate or any candidate gets 15 percent of the polls, that they will invite them to a presidential debate. Fifteen percent of the polls—Amy, that’s crazy. There hasn’t been a third-party candidate in the last 100 years that’s gotten close to 15 percent in the polls prior to any sort of presidential debate. It’s ridiculously high. Congress gives candidates millions of dollars of taxpayer funds if they win 5 percent of the popular vote. How is it that we can actually subsidize a candidate, yet they need three times that level of support just to get in these presidential debates?

Third-party candidates face extraordinary structural barriers—discriminatory ballot access, scant media coverage, loyalties of the political—in the voting public, enormous campaign finance disparities. So, if they manage to convince a majority of Americans that they ought to be included in the presidential debates, it’s outrageous that a private corporation backed by Anheuser-Busch, controlled by the two parties, is telling them no. It absolutely is a catch-22.

The presidential debates are the gatekeepers to credibility. If a third-party candidate gets in, he’s instantly deemed credible, viable, worthy of voter attention and worthy of media attention. But if he’s excluded, he’s dismissed as marginal, unworthy of voter attention or media attention, and his campaign is relegated, in many ways, to the dustbins of history. This is outrageous that the gatekeepers to our election process are not nonpartisan entities like the League [of Women Voters], but partisan individuals with loyalties to the Republican and Democratic parties. It stifles debate, by design.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you see this changing right now, George Farah? You’re the founder and executive director of Open Debates. You’ve been watching this over the years. The League of Women Voters, are they organizing? How are other groups actually organizing? How do you see this playing out?

GEORGE FARAH: Well, we created something in 2004 called the Citizens’ Debate Commission. It was comprised of 17 civic leaders from across the political spectrum, from, you know, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, on the right, to Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, on the left. It was backed by 60 civic groups on its advisory board. Twenty-three newspapers around country, from the L.A. Times to the Seattle Times, editorialized in support of the Citizens’ Debate Commission. And its specific purpose was clear: we were going to break the monopoly that the commission exerts over our presidential debate process.

Unfortunately, Amy, we failed, for the simple reason that there wasn’t sufficient public pressure. But this is not reason to throw up your arms in defeat and say, “Oh, my gosh, we can’t break this.” That was just planting the seeds. This was the beginning of a broad-based movement. The only way to truly break the monopoly of the Commission on Presidential Debates is to create a viable alternative that has so much grassroots support that it becomes politically costly for the major-party nominees to avoid those debates. Once upon a time, the major-party candidates could avoid debates altogether. There weren’t presidential debates in 1964, '68 and ’72, because it wasn't expected. Now, any major-party candidate seen avoiding the debates looks cowardly. It’s impossible. They must debate, whether they like it or not. We just want to take that expectation the public has and elevate it, so that not only will a candidate pay a price if they avoid debates, but they’ll pay a political price if they avoid real debates that they aren’t controlling. So this is a matter of evolving and pushing the public expectation. And step by step, I think we’re going to succeed. It’s just a matter of time. The fact that three of the 10 sponsors this election cycle withdrew their support is testimony to the fact that it is now becoming expensive to being too politically associated with the commission. If we can broaden that attack to not just include corporations but actually the individual candidates, we’re going to start to see some headway, we’re going to start to break the commission’s monopoly.

AMY GOODMAN: George Farah, I want to thank you for being with us, founder and executive director of Open Debates, also author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. He’ll be joining us tonight. We’ll be starting a half-hour before the actual presidential debate, at 8:30 Eastern [Daylight] Time. Vincent Harding will also be with us, close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King. He’s based here in Denver, helped to write the speech that Dr. King gave at Riverside Church in New York, why he opposed the war in Vietnam a year to the day before Dr. King was assassinated. And then we start the debate exactly at 9:00 Eastern time, just as the debate begins here in Denver. We will broadcast the debate. It is moderated by Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour. He’ll put the questions to the major-party candidates, Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, and then we’ll hit pause. We’ll expand the debate. The candidates will be here with us in the studio, also in Denver: Dr. Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson, both presidential candidates, third parties. Gary Johnson was invited, but he won’t be in the city. And we will expand the debate just as if they were standing right there at the University of Denver. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Check Back in a minute.

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