Mach Report This Comment
Date: March 26, 2010 05:12AM
Secret Control of the Presidential
The Obama and McCain campaigns jointly negotiated a detailed secret contract
dictating the terms of the 2008 debates. This included who got to participate,
what topics were to be raised, and the structure of the debate formats.
Since 1987, a private corporation created by and for the Republican and
Democratic parties called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has
sponsored the US Presidential debates and implemented debate contracts. In order
to shield the major party candidates from criticism, CPD has refused to release
debate contract information to the public.
In 1986, the Republican and Democratic National Committees ratified an agreement
“to take over the presidential debates” from the nonpartisan League of Women
Voters. Fifteen months later, then-Republican Party chair Frank Fahrenkopf and
then-Democratic Party chair Paul Kirk incorporated the Commission on
Presidential Debates. Fahrenkopf and Kirk still co-chair the Commission on
Presidential Debates, and every four years it implements and conceals contracts
jointly drafted by the Republican and Democratic nominees.
Before the CPD’s formation, the League of Women Voters served as a genuinely
nonpartisan presidential debate sponsor from 1976 until 1984, ensuring the
inclusion of popular independent candidates and prohibiting major party
campaigns from manipulating debate formats.
In 1980, the League invited independent candidate John B. Anderson to
participate in a presidential debate, even though President Jimmy Carter
adamantly refused to debate him.
Four years later, when the Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale campaigns vetoed
sixty-eight proposed panelists in order to eliminate difficult questions, the
League publicly lambasted the candidates for “totally abusing the process.”
The ensuing public outcry persuaded the candidates to accept the League’s
panelists for the next debate.
And in 1988, when the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns drafted
the first secret debate contract—a “Memorandum of Understanding” that
dictated who got to participate, who would ask the questions, even the heights
of the podiums—the League declined to implement it. Instead, the League issued
a blistering press release claiming, “the demands of the two campaign
organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”
The major parties, however, did not want a sponsor that limited their
candidates’ control. Consequently, the CPD was created to step in.
Since the CPD took control of the presidential debates in 1988, the debates have
been primarily funded by corporate contributions. Multinational corporations
with regulatory interests before Congress have donated millions of dollars in
contributions to the CPD, and debate sites have become corporate carnivals,
where sponsoring companies market their products, services, and political
agendas. Tobacco giant Phillip Morris was a major sponsor in 1992 and 1996. The
major contributor, Anheuser-Busch, has sponsored presidential debates in its
hometown of St. Louis in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008.
That the CPD has been able to raise millions of dollars in corporate
contributions is not surprising. Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, who co-chair
and control the CPD, are registered lobbyists for multinational corporations.
Kirk has collected $120,000 for lobbying on behalf of Hoechst Marion Roussel, a
German pharmaceutical company. Fahrenkopf earns approximately $900,000 a year as
the chief lobbyist for the nation’s $54 billion gambling industry. As
president of the American Gaming Association, Fahrenkopf directs enormous
financial contributions to major party candidates and saturates the media with
“expert” testimony extolling gambling’s “many benefits.” “We’re
not going to apologize for trying to influence political elections,” said
“These are the guys,” author George Farah points out, “deciding who gets
to participate in the most important political forums in the United States of
He adds, “Kirk and Fahrenkopf’s lobbying practices demonstrate a willingness
to protect corporate interests at the expense of voters’ interests. It
shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the co-chairs of the CPD are willing
to protect major party interests at the expense of voters’ interests.”
The current structure enables corporations to give money to both the Democratic
and Republican parties, which essentially supports their duopoly over the
political process and excludes third party voices that may be hostile to
Historically, third party candidates have played critical roles in our democracy
by introducing popular and groundbreaking issues that were eventually co-opted
by major parties—such as the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote,
social security, child labor laws, public schools, the direct election of
senators, paid vacation, unemployment compensation, and the formation of labor
unions. With third-party candidates excluded from discourse, they can’t break
the bipartisan silence on issues where the major parties are at odds with most
Of past debates, Farah questions, “In a country where corporations are the
dominant political and economic force, why did the debates pass without the word
“corporation” being spoken? . . . What about campaign finance reform?
Corporate crime? Environmental devastation? Child poverty and homelessness? Free
trade and globalization? Media concentration? Military spending? Immigration?
Civil liberties and privacy rights?”
For the last twenty years, while the CPD has sponsored the presidential debates,
challenging questions, assertive moderators, follow-up questions,
candidate-to-candidate questioning, and rebuttals have been excluded from
presidential debates. The CPD’s formats have typically prevented in-depth
examination of critical issues and allowed the candidates to recite a series of
memorized sound bites.
Walter Cronkite has called CPD-sponsored presidential debates an