Why the Presidential Debates Will Suck Even Though They Don’t Have To

The Commission on Presidential Debates is a private organization controlled by elites from the two major parties whose goal is to protect their standard-bearers.

Photo illustration by The Intercept. Getty Images.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have theoretically agreed to three debates. But the value of those debates will be dramatically limited because the Commission on Presidential Debates, which runs them, is a private organization controlled by elites from the two major parties whose goal is to protect their standard-bearers.

And under the guidance of the commission, presidential debates have become echo chambers for the two major party candidates to repeat familiar talking points and lob rehearsed one-liners, rarely deviating from their scripts.

Each cycle, the CPD decides not just the time and location of the debates, but the format and who will ask the questions. Meanwhile, the Republican and Democratic campaigns also negotiate a joint “Memorandum of Understanding” laying out a host of details about how the candidates are to be treated. Although the CPD claims that the MOUs are not binding on the organization, the contracts themselves specify that if the commission does not abide by them, the campaigns reserve the right to seek an alternative sponsor.

That means Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will find the terms to their liking — and the American public will be cheated out of its best chance to see the major candidates engage in a robust discussion of the issues facing the country.

But these debates could be far better. 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.

The single easiest change would be to pick knowledgeable, confrontational moderators. By contrast, Jim Lehrer, a milquetoast PBS anchor who serves on the CPD’s board, has been chosen to moderate the debates 12 times. His performance in a 2012 Obama-Romney debate — where he asked overly broad questions and repeatedly allowed both candidates to simply talk over his attempts to intervene — was appropriately savaged by media critics.

One could just imagine how such a weak moderator would try, and fail, to corral the bombastic Donald Trump in his debates with Hillary Clinton.

Where the CPD-run debates excel is in serving the goals of the party elders and lobbyists who run the commission and who value the smooth functioning of their political parties over the public interest.

Run by Party Elites and Lobbyists, Sponsored by Corporations

In 1988, the CPD wrested the stewardship of general election presidential debates away from the fiercely independent League of Women Voters (LWV), which had run the events from 1976 to 1984.

The CPD is nominally a nonpartisan organization, but its co-chairmen, Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., and Michael McCurry, are senior Republican and Democratic Party figures, both of whom leveraged their time in politics to later work for corporate interests.

Fahrenkopf chaired the Republican National Committee for six years before joining the Washington, D.C., law and lobbying firm Hogan & Hartson. From 1998 to 2013, he was the president of the American Gaming Association, a lobbying group for for-profit gambling interests.

McCurry is a former Clinton White House press secretary who today works for the D.C.-based corporate and political communications firm Public Strategies Washington. Although his current client list is not public, he was employed on the “Hands Off Internet” campaign in 2006, working for telecommunications companies to kill net neutrality.

The commission’s board of directors is composed of an entire strata of America’s elites including Howard G. Buffett, the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Newton N. Minow, a former chairman of Citigroup and Time Warner — and Jim Lehrer.

The debates themselves are consistently sponsored by private corporations. This year’s sponsors have yet to be announced, but in the past, they have included AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Southwest Airlines, J.P. Morgan, Ford Motor Company, and the Washington, D.C., international law firm Crowell & Moring.

The CPD has not included a third-party candidate in a presidential debate since Ross Perot ran in 1992. Since 2000, its rules state that only candidates who consistently poll over 15 percent in national polls should be included.

A Stilted and Stage-Managed Format

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 CPD took the unusual step in 2012 of announcing the general topics of the first, domestic policy-focused debate before it actually took place. The goal, CPD Executive Director Janet Brown told U.S. News & World Report,  was “to have the candidates come prepared for a more in-depth conversation.” But the topics listed – the economy, health care, the role of government, and governing — tipped the candidates off that they wouldn’t have to prepare at length to speak about issues like criminal justice or surveillance. And few would describe the debate that ensued as an “in-depth conversation.”

The MOUs sometimes limit audience participation. In 1992, audience members in a town hall-oriented debate were allowed to ask questions and then follow up, giving them the ability to express their pleasure or displeasure over the answer. Four years later, follow-up questions were banned. In 2012, even the moderator of the town hall debate was not allowed to ask follow-up questions.

But when Obama and Romney debated that year, moderator Candy Crowley showed a flash of independence by real-time fact-checking Romney’s claim that Obama didn’t call the Benghazi attacks terrorism for 14 days.

“He did in fact, sir,” she said.

And with those five words, she set off a firestorm of criticism, primarily from Republicans, for stepping outside the agreed to boundaries – actually taking a candidate to task for a false statement with a follow-up statement.

The campaigns also insist on banning open-ended candidate-to-candidate questioning. This form of cross-examination would make candidates directly confront each others’ political positions and philosophy, potentially departing from talking points and scripts. Every MOU that has been made public banned this form of questioning, although moderator Jim Lehrer did allow the candidates to directly question each other about each others’ responses in 2012.

The value of letting candidates ask each other questions was demonstrated in a non-CPD primary debate in 2008, when John Edwards set off a lengthy discussion about money in politics by directly asking Obama why his campaign had become the top recipient in the country of health industry dollars.

Narrow Debates Bound Between the Two Parties

By aggressively resisting the presence of third-party candidates, CPD debates are limited to the ideologies of the major campaigns. The result is that if neither party wants to address an issue, it doesn’t get addressed.

For example, after the first Gore-Bush debate in 2000, the Washington Post wrote an editorial titled “The Campaign’s Missing Issues,” noting that there was no debate between the candidates on issues like “free trade, the independence of the Federal Reserve and engagement with allies,” as well as other topics like capital punishment. The newspaper had a simple explanation for their absence: “because the two candidates … agree.”

The 2012 debates featured a single question about the controversial drone program, with moderator Bob Schieffer asking Mitt Romney his position on their use — given that we “know President Obama’s position on this.” Romney replied that he agreed with Obama and that “we should continue to use it, to continue to go after the people that represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.”

Without the presence of either a moderator — or a third party — to challenge both candidates on such an important issue, there was no actual debate.

There is also a problem with the lack of depth. From 1984 to 2000, for instance, the amount of time candidates were given for their initial responses to a question shrank from 4.5 minutes to two minutes

In 2012, the CPD tackled this problem by dividing the debates into six 15-minute blocks, where candidates would have two minutes to offer their initial response to a question and then engage in follow-up debate for the remainder of the time.

But it still let them hew closely to their scripts. For instance, Lehrer asked Romney. “What is your view about the level of federal regulation of the economy right now? Is there too much? And in your case, Mr. President is there – should there be more?”

The question was so incredibly broad it could have served as the basis of a 90-minute debate by itself. But Lehrer went on to say, “And we’ll go for a few minutes, then we’ll go to health care, OK?”

In the high school or collegiate debate circuits, spending a matter of minutes on topics of such import and then quickly moving onto another gigantic topic would be unheard of. But in our televised debates, it has become the norm.

Fixing the Debates

Reformers have suggested alternatives.

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.

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.

Today, most debate questions are developed by a small set of moderators and panelists chosen by the CPD, who derive them primarily from mainstream media campaign coverage. This encourages groupthink and prevents outside-the-box questions. The Citizens Debate Commission — a coalition of public leaders across the political spectrum — has proposed that a panel of moderators quiz the candidates.

Generalist moderators would be replaced with a “diverse panel of academic, civic, artistic, religious, media, labor and business leaders” — subject matter experts and representative of different American communities who would ask questions that matter to them, and could fact-check responses in real time.

Rutgers University historian David Greenberg authored an article shortly after the first Obama-Romney debates advocating that approach. Choosing subject matter experts as panelists would elevate the risks for candidates but would better serve the public interest, he told The Intercept. “You’d just get more unpredictability and originality” in the questions, he said, and greater depth in the questioning. He used the example of a criminologist asking candidates about the policy tradeoffs between harder policing and black incarceration rates — something few television news anchors would be prepared to tackle.

Although no general-election debate has ever used this format, the LGBTQ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC) held a forum with the Democratic presidential candidates in 2007 to press them on issues of gay and lesbian equality. The panelists were not just journalists, but also leaders who had worked in the community. For them, the issues being discussed were personal, and it showed in their sharp and persistent questioning.

When Obama insisted that he supported civil unions but wanted religious faiths to be able to decide what was marriage or not, HRC President Joe Solmonese followed up: “But on the grounds of civil marriage, can you see to our community where that comes across as sounding separate, but equal?”

Lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge asked Bill Richardson if being gay is a choice. He replied that he thought it was. Etheridge was taken aback. “I don’t know if you understand the question. Do you think a homosexual is born that way, or do you think that around seventh grade we go, ‘Ooh, I want to be gay?'”  Richardson replied that he wasn’t a scientist, leading to more umbrage from Etheridge.

There is also the idea of having the American people, rather than moderators, choose the questions.

In the spring of 2016, a broad spectrum of groups and individuals, including Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill, and Wikipedia Co-Founder Jimmy Wales sponsored what they called an “Open Debate” – where the questions were generated by 400,000 Internet votes – for Florida’s Democratic and Republican primaries for U.S. Senate.

Every question that was asked by the debate’s moderators was drawn from the 30 questions that received the most votes — a sort of Reddit for democracy.

The questions reflected popular issues such as overhauling the campaign finance system, ending “Too Big To Fail” banks, combating climate change by keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and tackling student debt.

The Open Debate Coalition is currently in negotiations with the CPD to urge it to adopt their program.

And while contemporary presidential debates strictly limit the time allotted to candidates to address the questions placed before them, and allow little interaction between candidates on the major issues, the report of a working group led by Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center this year suggested diminishing the role of the moderators and allowing candidates to interact directly with one another.

The group suggested what it called the “chess clock” format where candidates simply have to stay within their total block of time. Jamieson and her colleagues suggested that in a two-candidate debate each candidate receives 45 minutes of total speaking time, with three minutes maximum allotted to any question, answer, or rebuttal. Each time they want to speak, they hit their chess clock. When their 45 minutes are up, their time expires.

The goal is to “increase the direct candidate clash about substantive issues,” Jamieson told The Intercept.

Robert Rosenkrantz and John Donvan wrote an op-ed in February suggesting the debates instead adopt the same format they have used more than a hundred times with leading public intellectuals and academics, government officials, and other thought leaders in their popular debate series Intelligence Squared.

These debates are done in the Oxford-style format, meaning that there is a resolution put before the debaters – say, “The United States should ban handguns,” and the debaters spend the entirety of their time debating that one resolution.

“We propose a miniseries of hourlong debates between the Democratic and Republican nominees, each on a single resolution crafted to expose their fundamental differences,” they wrote.

Although it may seem unorthodox in today’s frantic debate environment, this proposal actually has its roots in American history. The first of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates revolved entirely around the two candidates’ views on the future of slavery.

One could imagine similar, single-issue debates around a number of topics today: immigration reform, money in politics, the Middle East, and economic inequality.

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