My guest today is Pete Tucker, an independent D.C.-based journalist who writes at TheFightBack.org and Huffington Post. He has recently written a series of pieces on presidential debates, including "How Presidential Debates Became 'a Fraud on the American Voter'."
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome to OpEdNews, Pete. It's quite clear that large numbers of voters are not thrilled about either party's nominee. But what's wrong with our presidential debates?
Pete Tucker: Thanks, Joan. Maybe the biggest problem with the presidential debates is that the organization running them was forged in sin, so to speak. While official-sounding, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was jointly created by Democrats and Republicans in 1987 in order to kick out the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which had been sponsoring the debates since 1976.
With debates regularly attracting over 50 million viewers, the two parties didn't want the independent League running them and determining whether third party candidates could participate. So the Democrats and Republicans replaced the League with the bipartisan CPD, giving their nominees a greater say over virtually every aspect of the debates.
The resulting debates were not uniformly well-received. CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite called them "phony, part of an unconscionable fraud." And the League ceased any involvement so as to avoid "becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."
Nearly thirty years later, the CPD is still at it.
JB: Thanks for that; I don't know that I was ever aware of the involuntary hand-over to the major parties. Hmmm. Cronkite hit the nail on the head. How has the takeover evinced itself over the years?
PT: Since CPD took over the debates, only one third party candidate has participated, and it was over the objections of the CPD which wanted him kept out.
In 1992, both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton felt having Ross Perot in the debates would hurt the other candidate more, so they instructed CPD to include Perot, who was polling 7 percent.
Four years later, Perot, a Texas billionaire, wanted back in the debates and he once again stood at 7 percent. But this time the major party candidates -- now Clinton and Bob Dole -- agreed to keep him out.
In exchange for agreeing to keep Perot out, Clinton got major concessions from Dole, including having just two debates instead of three and scheduling them opposite baseball playoff games when there'd be fewer viewers. As the frontrunner, Clinton wanted the debates to be "non-event," Clinton advisor (now ABC news anchor) George Stephanopoulos said shortly after the '96 election.
Likely as a result of public pressure, CPD no longer allows the Democratic and Republican nominees to determine third party candidates' debate eligibility via backroom wheeling and dealing. Instead CPD relies on pre-established criteria, including requiring candidates to average 15 percent in five national polls just prior to the debates. This barrier has kept out all third party candidates since it was established in 2000.
In this 'Year of the Outsider,' the 15 percent barrier is being challenged in ways we haven't seen before. Both Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein are running well-ahead of where they were four years ago, but it's still a very uphill fight.
JB: In a way, you could say that the candidacies of both Sanders and Trump were outside the major party mainstream. One of them succeeded in capturing his party's nomination. Does that change the equation at all?