Now that the party conventions are over, the next major focus of media attention are the debates. There will be three presidential debates (Monday, September 26; Sunday, October 9; and Wednesday, October 19) and one vice-presidential debate (Tuesday, October 4) all lasting from 9:00pm-10:30pm Eastern time.
There have been ongoing arguments as to whether these debates actually change people’s minds about whom they are going to support and the evidence is decidedly mixed with some saying no and others arguing that they do.
But for me that is less important than the fact that, as I have said many times before, elections are a good time to get people engaged about important issues and the debates can, in principle, play an important role. But what has happened is that the two major parties have commandeered the debate system and made it mush less informative than it could be.
The presidential debates have gone seriously downhill ever since the so-called bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates wrested control of the debates from the independent League of Women Voters in 1988. Despite its high-falutin’ name, the CPD is run by party hacks and loyalists from the Democratic and Republican parties whose main goal seems to be to avoid any potential for harm to their candidates.
One way they do that is to limit participation, by putting in a rule that says that third parties must poll at 15% or higher to be invited, an absurdly high bar. According to current polls, the Libertarian party’s Gary Johnson is polling around 9% and the Green party’s Jill Stein is polling above 3%. Even at 3%, we are talking about 4 million possible voters, hardly insignificant. Having them in the debates would provide much-needed diversity of views on many issues but current rules will keep them out.
Zaid Jilani explains how bad the debates have become since the CPD took over, with new rules for each election season to prevent those things that had in previous years allowed some real debate and questioning.
Under pressure from the Democratic and Republican campaigns, the CPD has become notorious for picking the most nonadversarial and noncontroversial panelists possible, so that campaigns will not object or threaten to boycott the debates.
The debates for the 2012 general election debates featured no black or Latino moderators. Politico noted that the average age of the chosen debate moderators was 69, and none were drawn from new media.
“In order to be considered as a candidate for moderator you have to be soaked in the sphere of consensus, likely to stay within the predictable inner rings of the sphere of legitimate controversy, and unlikely in the extreme to select any questions from the sphere of deviance,” media critic Jay Rosen told Politico.
The more parties that are represented, the broader the debate. Neither Clinton nor Trump, for instance, are calling for an end to the drug war, significantly reducing the military budget, taxing carbon, ending the death penalty, or establishing a publicly run universal health insurance system – despite the fact that nontrivial numbers of Americans, and some third parties such as the Libertarian and Green parties, want to see these options explored.
Jilani provides some suggestions on how the debates could be improved.
Among the most often-cited possible improvements: They could allow for longer response times; require candidates to ask each other open-ended questions; invite third parties; and be moderated by panelists who are experts in various subject areas and who are free to aggressively follow up on candidate responses, pushing them to dig down into policy questions.
One proposal sponsored by the Appleseed Electoral Reform Project at American University’s Washington College of Law suggests that any candidate should be invited to participate who achieves enough ballot access to theoretically win the election and who is registering at 5 percent in national polls (the same amount needed to receive federal funding) — or who the majority of Americans tell pollsters they want included in the debates.
In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan would have made the cut. This year, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson is easily crossing the 5 percent threshold. Green Party candidate Jill Stein is just shy of it.
Jilani’s article makes many other interesting suggestions but the CPD’s mandate from the two parties seems to be to make the debates as bland and content-free as possible so I cannot see them accepting the ideas.