The Democracy and Dispute Gap

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the October 2004 edition of The Valley Scene

By the time you read this, George Bush and John Kerry will have had their first debate at the University of Miami on September 30 in Coral Gables, FL. Two additional debates (October 8th and October 13th) have been scheduled, along with a Vice-Presidential contest on October 5th.

If you watched the Sept. 30 debate it probably made little impact on how you plan to vote. How could it be otherwise? Representatives of Bush and Kerry negotiated a 32 page agreement with the so-called Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) that almost guarantees a risk free performance for each candidate. According to the Associated Press, “the agreement specifies such things as a stipulation that no crowd shots should be aired during the answers, cameras cannot show the opposing candidate's reactions while the other is speaking, and that Bush and Kerry, as well as Cheney and Edwards, must shake hands at the outset of each debate.”

Even if Bush or Kerry commit a major verbal gaffe, as when Gerald Ford in 1976 claimed that the Soviet Union did not dominate Eastern Europe, the 24 hour cable news cycle will allow for maximum spin doctoring that will quickly quell the controversy. Each side will claim victory regardless of what actually transpired, while the networks will judge the winner by the results of instant poll data collected immediately after the debate ends.

I am the Green Party candidate on the November ballot for the 54th assembly district seat, so it won’t come as any surprise that I believe voters are ill-served by debates featuring only a Republican and a Democrat. Ever since the CPD, a Democratic and Republican Party front organization, wrestled sponsorship away from the League of Women Voters in 1988, voter interest in debates has fallen dramatically. The exception was 1992, when Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in three debates averaged over 65 million viewers. Since then, the CPB has adopted rules that make it impossible for third party or independent candidates to participate. The result? The two debates between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996 averaged only 40 million viewers, a paltry number repeated in the three debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000.

When the League of Women Voters gave up sponsorship, they issued a press release saying "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter." Indeed, the CPD sponsored presidential debates are a fraud and a sham. In place of meaningful candidate engagement that could help inform and mobilize voters, they feature instead a democracy gap and a dispute gap.

The democracy gap: Polls shows that the majority of Americans want to see candidates in addition to the Republicrats participating in the debates. Large numbers of Americans are engaged in campaign work for Nader, Green Party candidate David Cobb, Libertarian Michael Badnarik, and others. Yet the CPD stubbornly refuses to loosen its inclusion criteria in order to allow participation of any of these candidates. The Citizens’ Debate Commission (www.citizensdebate.org) advocates more reasonable inclusion criteria that would allow into the debates those candidates who are on enough state ballots to conceivably win the presidency and who 1.) register 5 percent in a pre-debate poll or 2.) whose views a majority of Americans tell pollsters they want to hear in the debates. Such criteria would guarantee inclusion of Nader and provide Cobb and Badnarik with a fighting chance at getting in.

The dispute gap: The entire purpose of a debate is to invite dispute or disagreement over critical issues. Yet absent the appearance of third party or independent candidates, it is unlikely that we will hear any meaningful or substantive disputes that might actually mobilize voters. Absent a Nader, Cobb, or Badnarik, we will hear little about:

What we will hear instead are Democratic and Republican Party talking points, so far out of touch with the majority of citizens that we will once again be fortunate if even half of eligible voters go to the polls.

Regardless of who wins the sham debates, I plan to vote my conscience on Nov. 2. I urge you to do the same.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.

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