Thursday, September 22, 2016

Debates posturing

I remember the genteel Presidential debates of the 1980’s and 90’s where the most drama was when a candidate came up with a snappy response that captured the zeitgeist of the moment. “There you go again…” said Ronald Reagan to President Carter, effectively nullifying the issues that his opponent kept bringing up while framing an opinion and judgement. Reagan also used humor in 1984 when he said: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," referring to Vice President Mondale. The gipper was brilliant at negating an issue without being unpleasant. The Debate Commission has made the 2016 upcoming sessions irrelevant, however.

Wikipedia informs: “The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) sponsors and produces debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and undertakes research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a nonprofit corporation controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties, has run each of the presidential debates held since 1988.”

The organization is equally controlled by longstanding prominent members of the established parties.  It’s partisan by its nature and its makeup. “In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity labeled the CPD a ‘secretive tax-exempt organization.’ CPI analyzed the 2004 financials of the CPD, and found that 93 percent of the contributions to the non-profit CPD came from just six donors, the names of all of which were blacked out on the donor list provided to the CPI.” It hasn’t improved with time.


The Presidential debates are when most voters focus on the candidates and the issues. It is absolutely appropriate that there be an established criteria for inclusion. You wouldn’t want 16 people on the stage (the way the GOP did during their primaries). The CPD in 2000 established a 15% threshold in the polls as the entry point. Seems fair. But it isn’t.

Candidates who do not receive major media coverage will find it very difficult to hit the legitimacy of 15%. More than that – their name should be on the polls that are used. Polls themselves would need to include every candidate. The Libertarian candidate in 2016, Gov. Gary Johnson who is on all 50 state ballots in November and has raised millions of dollars – was not listed on many of the polls or was a secondary question. The final five polls the CPD chose to use an average of did include Johnson, but hadn’t included him all along. CNN’s poll excluded all “millennials” – described by them as voters under 35. Not so fair.



According to Gallup a majority of voters identify not as Republican or Democrat, but as Independent. A majority of the polls used by the CPD over sampled Republicans and Democrats and under sampled Independents. To adequately poll requires time, resources and a balance that most organizations don’t have.

Beyond just popularity six major newspapers and dozens of elected leaders called for Johnson’s inclusion. It was not to be.

What would happen if a third-party candidate was on in the debates? We need to look no further back than 1992. Ross Perot was polling at 8%. Then President Bush (41) was assailing Bill Clinton about his lack of patriotism. The media was agog about the idea of flag burnings and the elder Bush was proclaiming what he’d do as leader of the free world to protect it.  The Democratic nominee went from talk show to talk show talking about his underwear preferences and playing saxophone. 

At the first debate Perot focused the nation on the issues he cared about: debt, deficit and the economy. The next six weeks the campaign changed to become a substantive comparison of three approaches to the economic challenges of the times. Perot’s poll numbers soared into the 30’s and then settled at about 19% for the election itself. The debates were good for discourse, good for policy and ultimately good for democracy as the President who was elected went by the mantra: “it’s the economy stupid.”

What is the CPD afraid of? Their mission states that they were founded to: “provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners” around Presidential elections. Clearly it’s not about fairness and its not about furthering the substantive discussion of issues facing the electorate.

Gary Johnson is a two-term Governor. He served as a Republican in a Democratic state. He was re-elected overwhelmingly. He previously ran for President in 2012 and was on 48 of the 50 state ballots. He and his running mate Bill Weld (another two-term Governor who as a Republican was re-elected in a Democratic state) have raised millions of dollars. The Libertarian Party has been an established political party for 45 years. Thousands of candidates stand for offices at every level of government and there are hundreds of elected officials.


Voters deserve to hear from Johnson. Has he run a perfect campaign? No. Has he misstated some things, forgotten some things, stumbled over some things? Yup. He’s owned every one of those mistakes (unlike other candidates). The bottom line is that he’s a serious candidate and the views that he represents will not be on the stage. That’s bad for America and bad for the world.


All is not lost. In today’s social media and high tech world it’s possible to remedy the CDP’s decision. Put Johnson in a soundproof studio – have him hear the questions and responses and then give him the same time to respond. The networks should then edit in his response for viewers. The debates are important - and not just for posturing.


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