History of the debates which used to be run by the League of Women Voters
This is from the book "Worse Than You Think: The Real Economy Hidden Behind Washington's Rigged Statistics and Where to Go From Here" by Keith Quincy. Can purchase an electronic copy for 99 cents
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From Chapter 7 Selling Congress
Taming The Presidential Debates
The last remaining bump in the road to mindless elections was the presidential debates. They did not fit the model of campaigns as theater. The debates were a recent thing, held at bay for more than three decades. The age of radio, begun in the 1920s, had created a national audience, yet the debates didn’t happen. No candidate wanted to be the first to debate before the entire public. What if he made a mistake, said the wrong thing, stammered his answers, or appeared indecisive? Could a bad performance cost him the election? Since it was untested water, no one knew the answer. Therefore, no candidate jumped at the chance to make history. It was too risky.
Franklin Roosevelt was as popular as a president could get. It put him way ahead in the polls. And he was no stranger to the radio. Roosevelt used the radio often for his fireside chats. The off-the-cuff soliloquies let him speak his mind to the public, but in a way that gave Roosevelt complete control. A radio debate was different. What if he made a mistake? Roosevelt could lose his lead in the polls. He might even lose the election. He refused to debate.
Eisenhower could have been the first president to debate on television. He turned down the chance. Eisenhower was enormously popular. But he was also an awful public speaker. He flubbed his words and often spoke in incomplete sentences that made no sense. Like Roosevelt, he did not want to throw away his lead in the polls by doing poorly in a debate.
History had to wait until 1960 for the first presidential debate. It was between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The debate was so popular that the public made it a rite of passage for presidential campaigns. Future candidates who ducked debates were punished at the voting booth.
In 1976, the League of Women Voters sponsored the debates. The League was the ideal choice. Its sole purpose was to promote honest democracy through a discussion of the important issues of the day. With the League in charge, it was difficult for candidates to avoid tough questions on issues that really mattered. But this created a problem. Washington no longer served the people. It served the corporations and the rich. It would not do to have the League on television before a national audience asking questions that exposed the scandal of our stolen democracy. It was urgent that the Democrats and Republicans take the debates away from the League and run the debates themselves.
Three elections later, in 1988, the leaders of the two main parties conspired to hijack the debates. Behind the scenes they created the Commission on Presidential Debates. The name sounds official, like a committee that congress appointed to take care of the public good. It is nothing of the sort. It is a private corporation, funded by corporate sponsors like Xerox, Ford Motors, and the agribusiness giant ADM. And the commission certainly does not have the good of the public in mind when it organizes debates. At the same time, the Democratic and Republican candidates met secretly to make their own rules for the debates. These rules turned the debates into a glorified press conference. There would be no hard questions or no real give-and-take debate.
The League of Women Voters refused to accept these limits. It was clear the candidates wished to avoid substance and spontaneity and to skirt tough questions. They wanted to turn the debates into a fraud. The League announced at a press conference that it “has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”46
When the League backed out, the Commission on Presidential Debates was in the aisles waiting to take over. It has been running the show ever since. Under its rule, in the place of debates, the candidates exchange sound bites. Answers to questions must be crammed into a tight one and a half to two minutes. And the commission keeps third party candidates off the stage, even when polls show the majority of Americans want them included.47 Third-party candidates are too dangerous. They might raise real issues.
Even with all of the controls, candidates still worry they might make a flub in front of millions of voters. The commission protects them by scheduling the debates at a time when people are likely to be watching something else. This is why so many of the debates are shown opposite MLB playoff games.4