Column: Corporate Ties Stifle Presidential Debate

This story was written by Michael Ramos-Lynch, Brown Daily Herald


The Commission on Presidential Debates has turned what would be an exercise of free speech and voter education into a corporate commercial filled with memorized soundbites that pertain to few real political issues. Patrick Henry, who once said, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" must be turning in his grave.

First, some background. While the CPD is supposed to serve as a nonpartisan facilitator of the presidential debates, it is actually a bipartisan corporate-funded front that gives Republicans and Democrats a monopoly on the speeches and excludes all third-party candidates.

According to OpenDebates.org, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Paul G. Kirk Jr. -- former heads of the Republican and Democratic national committees, respectively -- have served as co-chairmen of the CPD since its inception. Beyond their obvious partisan connections, both men have strong connections to corporations: Fahrenkopf has worked as a lobbyist for the gambling industry and Kirk has done the same for pharmaceutical companies.

Their clients include Hoechst Marion Roussel, ITT Corp., Hilton Hotels, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, according to OpenDebates. As lobbyists, their incomes are directly affected by who gets elected president.

Most of the funding for the debates comes from tax-deductible contributions made by major corporations who use the various debate locations as venues to advertise their products.

Phillip Morris displayed a large advertisement at one of the 1992 debate sites after contributing roughly $250,000 to the CPD, repots OpenDebates. In 2000, Anheuser-Busch contributed $550,000 to the CPD and proceeded to give out promotional materials that advertised the health benefits of beer and warned against beer taxes.

These corporate-funded events hardly qualify as debates. For instance, in 1988, the campaign committees of Republican candidate George H.W. Bush and Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis created a contract called a "memorandum of understanding." The contract dictated many specific rules for the debates. According to Constance Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney, recent memorandums of understanding between major-party presidential candidates have included agreements like "no candidate-to-candidate questions, no rebuttal to your opponent's points, no cross questions or cross answers, no rebuttals, no follow-up questions."

This format limits the debate to a superficial examination of the political issues (stipulated in advance by the two parties) and protects the candidates from answering questions concerning difficult issues, like homelessness, child poverty, corporate crime, prisons and gun rights. In fact, few of these issues were brought up during the three presidential debates that took place in 2000.

The CPD has also systematically excluded third-party candidates from the debates. Since 1992, the CPD has required third-party candidates to garner 15 percent of the popular vote, as estimated by various polls prior to the actual debate, according to OpenDebates.

By contrast, the Federal Election Campaign Act enables a candidate to receive federal funds after receiving only 5 percent of the popular vote in an actual election. Taxpayers could theoretically be compelled to help fund a candidate, yet not be able to hear him or her debate the other contenders.

Fifteen percent is an arbitrarily high threshold that exists solely to exclude third-party candidates from debating major-party candidates. Even if the criterion to debate were five percent, only two candidates (John Anderson and Ross Perot) would have been invited to participate.

Come Election Day, I will not vote for any candidate who has condoned the actions of the CPD y participating in presidential debates while other viable candidates were denied that right. I will not vote for selling out the democratic process to Anheuser-Busch and Phillip Morris. I will not vote against liberty.
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