The past year has upended the D.C. establishment, and some among the surviving ruling class fear they may be next. Folks at the Commission on Presidential Debates are especially worried. For almost 30 years, the CPD has orchestrated the most-watched political events in America—TV debates between the Democratic and Republican nominees. Controlled by the two parties and funded in previous years by corporations including Philip Morris and Anheuser-Busch, the organization symbolizes everything outsiders such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have campaigned against.
The idea behind the debate commission was always slightly nefarious: to create an airtight showcase for the two big parties and their policies and to exclude insurgent candidates from challenging them. The CPD permits the nominees to decide everything from moderators to topics. It also persuades universities and colleges to host debates, though few students are admitted since most tickets go to high-dollar donors—“one nice way you can recognize people who’ve helped you,” CPD executive director Janet Brown once explained.
When legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite saw how this game was played, he called it an “unconscionable fraud.”
It wasn’t always like this. In 1960, newsman Don Hewitt (who went on to create 60 Minutes) persuaded Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon to debate. They met four times in TV studios without audiences, and journalists could ask anything. The next debates were hosted in 1976 by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which convinced President Gerald R. Ford to face Georgia governor Jimmy Carter three times. The League debate became a national tradition. In 1980, it included a popular third-party candidate, Representative John Anderson of Illinois, who appeared with California governor Ronald Reagan. (Then president Carter refused to appear, believing Anderson might draw votes from him.)
Later, stubborn politicians and growing expenses created uncertainty. “Sometimes we didn’t know if we’d be able to pull off a debate at all,” says former League president Nancy Neuman. Washington elites wanted to steal control from the League and established the Commission on Presidential Debates as a private corporation with a name designed to sound like part of the government.
The end of the League’s debate dominance came when it fought to prevent Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis from calling the shots in 1988. “The campaigns got together and gave us a list—pages and pages of rules,” says Neuman. “They included reviewing the moderator’s script, and they wanted to run phone lines from the candidates’ dressing rooms into the producer’s control room. That’s when I said, ‘We’re not going to be an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.’ ”
The CPD seized on the League’s crisis and took over. It scored huge donations from the likes of Atlantic Richfield (now oil giant ARCO) and agricultural behemoth Archer Daniels Midland. Negotiators for Bush and Dukakis signed a 16-page “memorandum of understanding,” agreeing not to participate in any other debate hosted by any other sponsor with any other candidate. The contract also prohibited the candidates from questioning each other, banned producers from cutting away to candidate reaction shots and even dictated the height of lecterns (48 inches). In every election since, the nominees have abided by those terms—and added more demands.
While the CPD claims to welcome third-party candidates, facts show otherwise. When billionaire Ross Perot ran as an independent in 1992, then president Bush believed Perot would pull votes from the Democratic challenger, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, so Bush insisted Perot participate, over the CPD’s objections. Bush got his way but lost the election. (Later, he admitted that Perot cost him support.) When Perot ran again in 1996, the big parties struck a secret deal excluding him from the debate. The CPD later kept third-party candidates Patrick Buchanan and Ralph Nader out and even threatened to have Nader arrested if he attended as a spectator. Meanwhile, guests enjoyed “an Anheuser-Busch refreshment tent, where there is beer flowing, snacks, Budweiser girls in red sweaters,” reported The Washington Post.
Maybe this will be the year the bell tolls for the CPD. Even if Sanders and Trump falter, the anti-business-as-usual movement they’ve galvanized doesn’t bode well for the major parties’ continued control over debates. Even now, the debate commission seems to be girding for the inevitable battle to preserve its fiefdom. “We’re sued all the time, every cycle,” says Brown.