January 2008 Issue
by James H. Ewert Jr.
Here’s an analogy: The recent televised exchanges between Republican and Democratic candidates for president are to debates as dry humping is to sex. You always finish unsatisfied, frustrated and feeling a little dirty. Just how dry humping isn’t sex, the charade that is purported to be informative political debate is not a debate at all. Actual debates offer a structural discussion on the merits of an issue. Actual debates have winners and losers. Actual debates are everything presidential debates are not. What most call presidential debates, actually, are more like group press conferences.
Let us just go ahead and start with the recent CNN/YouTube debates. These little ditties were heralded by CNN as an unprecedented step forward in revolutionizing the way political debates are conducted — and it certainly was. For the first time in history, it was the same irrelevant questions and the dimwitted questioners who stole the stage from the candidates and their evasive answers. Of course, CNN handpicked the questions instead of letting the YouTube users generate them like the public was led to believe. CNN’s senior vice president David Borhman, who was among those selecting the questions, was quoted as saying, “If you would have taken the most-viewed questions…The top question would have been whether Arnold Schwarzenegger was a cyborg sent to save the planet Earth. The second-most-viewed video question was: Will you convene a national meeting on UFOs?”
We see his point, but that actually may have been more interesting than hearing the same dull answers to questions about immigration, abortion, healthcare, gays, guns and Iraq. Not to say that those questions aren’t of value, but candidates’ positions on those issues are all readily available. The few curveballs weaved into the debates were trivial, unimportant and had nothing to do with how capable someone is to become president. Here are a few that were asked: “How would you define the word ‘liberal’?”, “Do you believe every word of the Holy Bible?”, “Do you believe in a conspiracy to make a new union?”, “Yankees vs. Red Sox?”
The country is spending billions of dollars each week fighting two wars overseas, climate change is threatening to forever alter the course of humanity and we’re asking presidential candidates if they’re Yankees or Red Sox fans? Not once during these debates was there a question asked about net neutrality, a topic that might have gone well with a debate emphasizing the Internet’s influence on politics. Not once was there a question asked about the about the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, etc. As if that wasn’t enough, there was the soft-spoken moderators, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, who outside the comfy confines of their television studios suddenly lost all will to hold candidates’ feet to the fire. Blitzer and Cooper usually have no problem skewering guests on their shows, but during the debates, neither held any authority in enforcing time limits. This detail effectively wiped out any semblance the debates still had of being debates. If candidates are allowed to simply ignore the moderator and finish their campaign platform speeches, what is the point of even having moderators?
Well folks, if you think the recent primary season debates have been stilted, just wait until the actual presidential debates begin later this year. For these debacles, look up the Commission on Presidential Debates, the self-described “independent” group entrusted with the responsibility of selecting the participants, locations, and parameters of possibly the most important element of a presidential election.
In 1987 the New York Times published a story explaining that Democratic and Republican party leaders colluded to usurp the nonpartisan League of Women Voters’ role in organizing the presidential debates. The story reported that co-chairman Paul G. Kirk and Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., the Democratic and Republican national chairmen respectively, would not favor the inclusion of third-party candidates in the debates. Since then, no third-party candidate has ever made it to the presidential debates. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who tried unsuccessfully to participate in the 2000 and 2004 debates, made the most recent attempt. In 2000, the commission even went so far as to circulate a face-sheet of people, many of whom were independent political voices, who were barred from the event. Nader had a ticket to watch the debate from a viewing room and an interview invitation from FoxNews, but was nearly arrested when he tried to enter. Nader promptly sued the Commission for using state police officers to enforce a political agenda and within weeks was given a formal apology from the co-chairmen, who pledged to allow him to enter next time if he had a ticket. Nader’s story exemplifies the intrusive and sometimes disturbing nature of the Commission on Political Debates.
To participate in the debates, the Commission requires that a candidate be nationally polling at 15 percent, far more than the five percent threshold that the League of Women Voters required — and much more than the one percent required in primary debates. What makes this criterion even more appalling is the fact that the federal government only requires that a candidate be nationally polling at five percent to receive money from the taxpayer-generated public campaign financing coffers. Thus, the American voters’ money is being wasted, their time disregarded, and their standards circumvented — all in the name of the two-party system’s duopoly.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does. It goes without saying that the CPD’s claim of nonpartisanship is questionable, if not downright bullshit. Each of the 12 board members is from a political party and in fact, five of them have been donating money to presidential campaigns this season alone. This should give immediate pause to any self-respecting potential voter. With the members of the CPD investing their money into political races, what would lead anyone to believe that they are acting as an independent entity responsible for administering informative debate? Unfortunately the conflicting interests do not stop there. This wouldn’t be a political column without mentioning the role big business plays in all of this. Further complicating the supposed independent interests of the Commission on Political Debates are some of the United States’ largest corporations like Ford, AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Sprint, J.P. Morgan, and IBM, who are listed as “national debate sponsors” on the Commission’s website, www.debates.org.
Until we make radical changes to our electoral system, the American public will continue to be marginalized and disenfranchised by corporate interests with a stranglehold on our prized political system. If something isn’t done soon, everyone labeled “apathetic” will be right in saying that there are no differences between puppet A and puppet B. As we fight wars in the name of democratic ideals, it is truly amazing that the United States, of all countries, is not only allowing but perpetuating such injustices within the very same electoral system that men and women are dying for. Lady Liberty would be ashamed.
CI Political File #003