After weeks of political wrangling, Sen. John Kerry and President Bush will square off for the first of three key presidential debates. Both camps have agreed to an elaborate, 32-page contract that spells out everything from the size of the dressing rooms to permitted camera angles.
But the controversy over the debates threatens to overshadow the events themselves. Some citizen groups complain that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) isn't as non-partisan as it should be, and that Kerry and Bush won't be pressed on urban issues. Commentator Connie Rice says that's just the tip of the iceberg, and she's got another Top 10 list — this time: Top 10 Secrets They Don't Want You to Know About the Debates.
(10.) They aren't debates!
"A debate is a head-to-head, spontaneous, structured argument over the merits of an issue," Rice says. "Under the ridiculous 32-page contract that reads like the rules for the Miss America Pageant, there will be no candidate-to-candidate questions, no rebuttal to your opponent's points, no cross questions or cross answers, no rebuttals, no follow-up questions — that's not a debate, that's a news conference."
(9.) The debates were hijacked from the truly independent League of Women Voters in 1986.
"The League of Women Voters ran these debates with an iron hand as open, transparent, non-partisan events from 1976 to 1984," Rice says. "The men running the major campaigns ended their control when the League defiantly included John Anderson and Ross Perot, and used tough moderators and formats the parties didn't like. The parties snatched the debates from the League and formed the Commission on Presidential Debates — the CPD — in 1986."
(8.) The "independent and non-partisan" Commission on Presidential Debates is neither independent nor non-partisan.
"CPD should stand for 'Cloaking-device for Party Deceptions' — it is not an independent commission on anything. The CPD is under the total control of the Republican and Democratic parties and by definition bipartisan, not non-partisan. Walter Cronkite called CPD-sponsored debates an 'unconscionable fraud.'"
(7.) The secretly negotiated debate contract bars Kerry and Bush from any and all other debates for the entire campaign.
"Under what I call the Debate Suppression and Monopolization Clause of the contract, it is illegal for the candidates to debate each other anywhere else during the campaign," Rice says. "We need a new criminal law for reckless endangerment of democracy."
(6.) The debate contract effectively excludes all other serious presidential candidates from participating in the debates.
"This is what I call the Obstruction of Democratic Debate Rule, which sets an impossibly high threshold for third-party candidates... Where are we, Russia? Isn't Vladimir Putin wiping out democracy in Russia by excluding all opposing candidates from the airwaves during his re-election campaigns? Most new ideas come from third parties — they should be in the debates."
(5.) All members of the studio audience must be certified as "soft" supporters of Bush and Kerry, under selection procedures they approve.
"It's not enough to rig the debate — they have to rig the audience, too? The contract reads: 'The debate will take place before a live audience of between 100 and 150 persons who... describe themselves as likely voters who are soft Bush supporters or soft Kerry supporters.' We should crash this charade and jump up in the middle to declare ourselves hard opponents of this Kabuki dance."
(4.) These "soft" audience members must "observe in silence."
"Soft and silent... In what I'm calling the Silence of the Lambs Clause of this absurd contract, the audience may not move, speak, gesture, cough or otherwise show that they are alive and thinking."
(3.) The "extended discussion" portion of the debate cannot exceed 30 seconds.
"Other than the stupidity of the debate contract, what topic do you know that can be extendedly discussed in 30 seconds?"
(2.) Important issues are locked out by the CPD debate rules and party control.
"Really important but sticky or tough issues get axed, because the parties control the questions and topics," Rice says. "For example, in 2000, Gore and Bush mentioned the following issues zero times: Child poverty, the drug war, homelessness, working-class families, NAFTA, prisons, corporate crime and corporate welfare."
(1.) Fortune 100 corporations are the main funders of the CPD-sponsored debates, and the CPD's co-chairs are corporate lobbyists.
The CPD is run by Frank Fahrenkopf, a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, and Paul Kirk, a top gambling lobbyist," Rice says. "And the biggest muliti-national corporations write the checks that fund the CPD — Phillip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and dozens more. The audience may have to be silent and motionless, but the corporate sponsors can have banners, beer tents, Budweiser girls handing out pamphlets protesting beer taxes — a corporate-sponsored circus to go along with the Kabuki Debates. Could we get a more fitting description of our democracy?"