No Debate About It: These Face-offs Are Snoozers

Even the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates admits the first two debates have been oddly non-confrontational and lacking a “major screw-up or a major defining event.”

Frank Fahrenkopf assumed 2008 would be remembered for a major innovation, the inclusion of freewheeling five-minute “open discussion” periods in the first and third presidential debates.

Instead, his nonpartisan commission has come under fire for eschewing interactive technologies that might have enlivened the debates — and for staging events many think have underplayed the magnitude of the country’s problems.

“We’ve put in good new rules this year to try to get them to engage, but we can only do so much coddling and pushing them. You can’t force them to engage,” said Fahrenkopf.

“It was clear that John McCain not only didn’t engage Obama, he didn’t even look at him,” he added, referring to the first debate, in Oxford, Miss. “Remember how [moderator] Jim Lehrer kept saying ‘Don’t talk to me, talk to him’?”

Fahrenkopf blames the candidates for being overly cautious, but the lackluster debates — particularly last week’s meandering town hall at Nashville’s Belmont University — have prompted a backlash against the commission, which replaced the League of Women Voters as debate organizer in 1988.

“What we’re getting now aren’t debates — they are parallel stump speeches,” says George Farah, founder of Open Debates, a bipartisan group that has sparred with the commission for years over its secretive rule-making pacts with candidates. “We need to really look at changing the system … anything that allows for an unrehearsed answer, anything that throws the candidates off their game and give them a human face.”

In 1986, Fahrenkopf, who was then chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Paul G. Kirk, his DNC counterpart, joined up to create the Commission on Presidental Debates, which a joint press release from both parties deemed "a bipartisan, nonprofit, tax-exempt organization formed to implement joint sponsorship of general election presidential and vice presidential debates, starting in 1988, by the national Republican and Democratic committees between their respective nominees."

That year, the commission was supposed to host one debate, and the League of Women Voters would host the other one, but the League's board unanimously voted to withdraw its sponsorship after the campaigns of George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis secretly negotiated a memorandum of understanding on the debate's terms, including the selection on panelists and the composition of the audience.

The League wrote a scathing release warning that "It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

This year the commission, which is a nongovernmental agency funded by corporate and nonprofit sponsors, is getting hit from all sides. New media advocates want to scrap it for a new group that would replace the commission’s two-guys-and-a-moderator setup with an Internet-based mass participation format.

And representatives for McCain and Obama privately considered ditching the commission earlier this year — believing its staff to be “too high-handed” in pushing McCain and Obama to hit each other harder, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

All of this might be forgotten if both candidates bring their "A" games to Wednesday’s final debate at Long Island’s Hofstra University, which will focus exclusively on the economy and domestic policy.

But ritics of all political stripes, alarmed by the prospect of another disappointment, are pressuring both campaigns and moderator Bob Schieffer to put aside the negotiated restrictions in order to foster freer, more substantive exchanges.

On Friday, a bipartisan group of e-politics advocates sent an open letter to the McCain and Obama campaigns urging them to scrap their secret 31-page debate covenant restricting the candidates' interactions crafted by Obama's representatives, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and debate guru Bob Barnett, and McCain's proxies, Sen. Lindsey Graham (D-S.C.) and Brett O'Donnell, former debate coach at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

The goal, the group wrote, was to give the CBS newsman “broad discretion to ask follow-up questions after a candidate’s answer, so the public can be fully informed about specific positions.”

The letter from the Open Debate Coalition included a request that some of the questions asked Wednesday be determined by Internet vote. Signers included Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, the founders of Craigslist and Wikipedia, GOP consultant Patrick Ruffini, Arianna Huffington and the leadership of MoveOn.org and the National Organization for Women.

The co-signers also asked the campaigns to consider replacing the 20-year-old commission with an “alternative” organization that will embrace new technologies, encourage “out of the box” formats — and eliminate secret pre-debate covenants.

So far, neither campaign has responded.

Fahrenkopf shrugs off such criticism, saying it should be directed at the candidates, not the commission. “I understand the frustration,” he says. “Most debates are remembered for the one-liner — that hasn’t happened yet.”

Critics disagree, and say that last week’s oddly anodyne town hall was a failure of planning.

The candidates largely talked past each other, and the format limited them to two-minute responses with scant one-minute windows for open discussion — constraints that moderator Tom Brokaw enforced vigorously, if reluctantly.

The event will probably be best remembered for McCain's coldly referring to Obama as “that one” — and for the “Saturday Night Live” parody that featured the Arizona senator shambling about the stage as Obama answered questions.

The commission did offer a cursory nod to the concept of Web interactivity — four of 25,000 questions submitted online, via the Gallup Organization, and sifted by debate organizers.

The town hall format was more symbolic than interactive. Audience members weren’t allowed to interact with the candidates after they posed their questions, their microphones were turned off and cameras weren’t permitted to record their reactions, according to details of the covenant obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. 

“It was a joke, that’s not real interactivity,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of techPresident.com, which monitors the use of technology in the campaign.

The commission’s staff had hoped this year would be remembered for innovation, not stagnation. In mid-2007, executive director Janet Brown hired former NBC News political director Elizabeth Wilner to help incorporate new technologies in debates and on the commission’s Web site. But after a few months of work, Wilner and the commission parted ways.

A source familiar with the situation cited friction between Wilner and commission staff over the changes.

Wilner, who has written for Politico, shared her ideas but left before making formal proposals — which were to have included requiring candidates to answer questions sent via Web video and queries submitted in real time through the organization’s Web site, according to people familiar with the planning.

That wasn’t a philosophy commission leaders have completely embraed.

Fahrenkopf, for one, wasn’t impressed by the groundbreaking July 2007 YouTube/CNN Democratic debate, which featured a talking snowman — and the question that elicited Obama’s controversial assertion that he’d be willing to negotiate directly with foreign dictators.

“A snowman? It was demeaning in a debate to decide who will be the president of the United States,” he said.

In August, Brown told reporters at the National Press Club that too much technology would overshadow exchanges between the candidates. “We're trying to deliver a televised debate to a very large audience,” she said. “And at the moment, my board of directors feels as though we should focus on that, and use the interactivity as an annex to it, not as something that will be feeding video in real time or on a taped basis into the debate itself.”

If the commission is to survive, its leaders will eventually have to make some of the changes critics have demanded, according to debate expert Alan Schroeder.

“The commission is very conservative in its approach to the debates because they feel the general election debates are not the place to innovate — the stakes are just too high for the country and the risks are too great for the candidates,” said Schroeder, a Northeastern University political science professor who has written several books on presidential debates.

“They have been a little slow in reacting to potential improvements but at the same time I have to appreciate the fact that they don’t want to turn this thing into a game show,” he added.