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Originally Published: 9/17/2008


By The Issue Wonk


Do you remember when the presidential debates were held by the League of Women Voters? Do you wonder what happened to that? The debates were taken over by the people who had the most to gain from controlling them: the Republican and Democratic parties. They are no longer done to inform the voters. They are held to placate voters while controlling the message.


The Organization


The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was formed in 1987 and seized control of the debates for the first time in 1988. Paul G. Kirk, Jr. and Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. were the founders and still are the co-chairs of CPD. It has sponsored every presidential debate since. It states that its mission is:


to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners. Its primary purpose is to sponsor and produce debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates. [Emphasis added.]


Paul G. Kirk Jr. was the Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from 1985 to 1989. He also serves as Chair of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation Board of Directors. In addition:


  • He is retired as an attorney affiliated with Sullivan & Worcester LLP of Boston (who also has offices in Washington D.C. and New York City). A list of clients shows that Sullivan & Worcester’s biggest clients are primarily major financial institutions, such as Bank of America, Bank of Scotland, and Deutsche Bank AG. It also represents pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Inc. and major federal contractor Raytheon.

  • Kirk is also the Chair and CEO of Kirk & Associates, Inc., a “business advisory and consulting firm.” Information on this organization is difficult to find. The official address for it is in Australia, but I could find no Website.

  • He serves on the Board of Rayonier, Inc., “a leading international forest products company, structured as a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT).”

Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. is president and CEO of the American Gaming Association. According to his bio, he “is the national advocate for the commercial casino industry and is responsible for positioning the association to address regulatory, political and educational issues affecting the industry.” (Read: lobbyist. I wonder how closely he’s worked with Jack Abramhoff.)


  • He's held various positions with the American Bar Association.

  • He has 3 daughters. Allison Brigati is an attorney at The World Bank, hired by Suzanne Rich Folsom (both were later forced out) to investigate the Paul Wolfowitz/Shaha Riza pay deal which led to Wolfwitz’ stepping down.1 Another daughter, Leslie, was associate counsel to George W. Bush until July 2008. She was allegedly in charge of replacing New Mexico’s U.S. attorney, David Iglesias, in the federal attorney scandal.2 She is now employed as vice president and general counsel of News Corp., a Rupert Murdoch organization.3

I could find little information on CPD’s funding. Its Website does not disclose any funders. OpenDebates.com lists the financers for the debates held from 1996 to 2004, but I was not able to independently verify this. However, Connie Rice, in 2004, had some insight:


The CPD is run by Frank Fahrenkopf, a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, and Paul Kirk, a top gambling lobbyist. And the biggest multi-national corporations write the checks that fund the CPD – Phillip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and dozens more. The audience may have to be silent and motionless, but the corporate sponsors can have banners, beer tents, Budweiser girls handing out pamphlets protesting beer taxes – a corporate-sponsored circus to go along with the Kabuki Debates. Could we get a more fitting description of our democracy?4


[Note: Rice got Kirk and Fahrenkopf mixed up. Maybe she just misspoke, but it does call into question her knowledge of CPD.]


The CPD controls who is engaged in the debates, which is why we no longer see any 3rd parties. Candidate selection criteria are:


A candidate must show evidence of Constitutional eligibility.


A candidate must show evidence of “ballot access.” This means that the candidate must “qualify to have his/her name appear on enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority in the 2008 general election.


A candidate must have indicators of electoral support; that is, “at least 15% of the national electorate as determined by 5 selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recent publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.”


In other words, no candidate who cannot win can be involved in the debates because that person may raise issues they don’t want raised.


Organizing the Debates


Kirk and Fahrenkopf have announced the dates and moderators for the 2008 debates:


  • The 1st presidential debate will be held Friday, September 26th at the University of Mississippi. Moderator will be Jim Lehrer of The NewsHour.

  • The only vice presidential debate will be held Thursday, October 2nd at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. Moderator will be Gwen Ifill, Senior Correspondent on The NewsHour and Moderator and Managing Editor for Washington Week.

  • The 2nd presidential debate is a town meeting to be held Tuesday, October 7th at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. Moderator will be Tom Brokow, correspondent for NBC News.

  • The 3rd presidential debate will be held on Wednesday, October 15th at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Bob Schieffer, CBS News correspondent and host of Face the Nation will moderate.

  • Each will begin at 9:00 p.m. EST.

They have also announced the “format” or, rather, the rules.5


  • Each debate will have a single moderator and last for 90 minutes.

  • In the 1st and 3rd presidential debates and the vice presidential debate [notice there will be only 1], the candidates will be seated with the moderator at a table.

  • One presidential debate will focus primarily on domestic policy and one presidential debate will focus primarily on foreign policy. The second presidential debate will be held as a town meeting in which citizens will pose questions to the candidates. The vice presidential debate will cover both foreign and domestic topics.

  • During the 1st and 3rd presidential debates, and the vice presidential debate, the time will be divided into 8, 10-minute segments. The moderator will introduce each segment with an issue on which each candidate will comment, after which the moderator will facilitate further discussion of the issue, including direct exchange between the candidates for the balance of that segment.

  • The participants in the town meeting will pose their questions to the candidates after reviewing their questions with the moderator for the sole purpose of avoiding duplication. The participants will be chosen by the Gallup Organization and will be undecided voters from the Nashville, Tenn. standard metropolitan statistical area. During the town meeting, the moderator has discretion to use questions submitted by the Internet. [Emphasis added.]

  • Time at the end of the final presidential debate will be reserved for closing statements.

Why Control the Debates?


According to the press release at the formation of CPD, “By jointly sponsoring these debates, we will better fulfill our party responsibilities to inform and educate the electorate, strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process and, most important of all, we can institutionalize the debates, making them an integral and permanent part of the presidential process.” [Emphasis added.] Let me remind you that the nation’s founders, remarkably prescient about how the country would fare, missed one thing: the rise of political parties. The problems posed by the 2-party system were evident almost immediately. (See Adams v. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.) If the founders could have foreseen political parties taking control of the main decision-making process for voters, I believe they would have been appalled, and may have banned them entirely.


As stated above, the “rules” are designed to present an uninspiring debate that excludes non-major party candidates and avoids pressing national issues. In other words, unlike the League of Women Voters’ non-partisanship, the CPD is bi-partisan, they advance the goals of both parties rather than inform the voters. Walter Kronkite called them an “unconscionable fraud.”4


According to NPR Commentator Connie Rice:


The League of Women Voters ran these debates with an iron hand as open, transparent, non-partisan events from 1976 to 1984. The men running the major campaigns ended their control when the League defiantly included John Anderson and Ross Perot, and used tough moderators and formats the parties didn’t like. The parties snatched the debates from the League and formed the Commission on Presidential Debates – the CPD – in 1986.4 [Emphasis added.]


Referring to the 2004 debates, Rice further stated:


Really important but sticky or tough issues get axed, because the parties control the questions and topics. For example, in 2000, Gore and Bush mentioned the following issues zero times: Child poverty, the drug war, homelessness, working-class families, NAFTA, prisons, corporate crime and corporate welfare.4


According to OpenDebates.com, “With the exception of the 1992 debates, which included [Ross] Perot, presidential debate content has increasingly consisted of issues targeted toward specific voting populations in swing states.” It is interesting to note the effect of the presence of 3rd party candidates. Perot’s presence in 1992 highlights this. He pushed the discussion on the federal deficit and the loss of jobs due to trade agreements. His arguments had an effect. Bill Clinton balanced the budget and had a very difficult time getting NAFTA passed.


OpenDebates goes on to give a history of debate content:


In 2000, during the 1st and 3rd presidential debates, only 5 topics constituted the majority of conversation: education, tax cuts, leadership experience, prescription drugs under Medicare, and social security reform. Almost 20% of the 2 debates were devoted to prescription drugs under Medicare and social security – topics that resonate primarily with seniors. 10% of the debates was spent describing, in excruciating detail, exactly how each candidate would provide cheaper prescription drugs to senior citizens. With less to argue over, the candidates spoke to senior citizens in Florida who could make an electoral difference.


Why is this happening? Have you noticed how close elections have become? That is because the parties are moving to the center, with overlapping philosophies, and both parties are dependent on corporate money in order to survive. In other words, the 2-party system exists on the fringes only. For mainstream America, there is only 1 party – the corporate party.


New York Times bestselling author George Lakoff6 recently wrote an article for Truthout about framing the issues. While what he proposes does not apply to the debates, his hypothesis can be viewed as another reason for controlling the debates – to keep the discussion off the issues so that the presidential choice is based on 5 “character” factors: values, authenticity, communication and connection, trust, and identity. He points out that, in 1980, Carter led Reagan on the issues and, in 1984, Mondale led Reagan on the issues. But people voted on the “character” factors. Gore and Kerry also ran on the issues but George W. Bush ran on the character factors.7


The effect of “controlling the debates” cannot be ignored. By not informing the voters of the positions of the candidates on the issues, the voters only look at character, a message that is easily manipulated. This is the core of the problems infesting politics today. We have one party, the corporate party, that is controlling the information that voters receive. Public policy is no longer the issue. We vote on religion, fashion, hair, and anything else that strikes our fancy. But never on the issues.



1  Editorial. World Bank Purge. Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2008. Preserved at FreeRepublic.com.


2  drational. USAGate and Karl Rove’s Email Trail. Daily Kos, May 7, 2007.


3   Eggen, Dan. Barack Who? Washington Post, July 21, 2008.


4  Commentary. Connie Rice: Top 10 Secrets They Don’t Want You to Know About the Debates. NPR, September 29, 2004.


5  Until 2004 the Memorandum of Understanding, that is, the agreement between the parties as to the format of the debates, were kept secret. Thanks to the work of OpenDebates.com, in 2004 the Memorandum was made public. However, this year they again have refused to disclose it. OpenDebates.com is still fighting it.


6  Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.


7  Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of a Maverick! Truthout, September 11, 2008.



© The Issue Wonk, 2008





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