A commission run by the Republicans and the Democrats gatekeeps third-party and independent runners from the public eye
With Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the running as an independent candidate in the 2024 presidential election, it’s a good time to revisit a part of the US election process that seems specifically designed to protect the status quo.
In 1987, a strange thing happened on the treacherous road to US democracy. Instead of the League of Women Voters (LWV) sponsoring the US presidential debates, something the ladies had done without a hitch since 1976, the campaign teams of George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis agreed behind closed doors to a “memorandum of understanding” that would authorize them to decide on a number of crucial issues, including how candidates could participate in the debates, which individuals could serve as panelists, and even the height of the lecterns.
Thus was born the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a nonprofit corporation established under the joint control of the Democratic and Republican parties, which lays down the law as to who may participate in the televised debates. Yes, you read that right. The two major political parties in the country, which have enjoyed a duopoly over the White House since the Civil War (specifically with the election of the Republican President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869), awarded themselves the authority to keep all possible contenders to the throne at a safe distance. That’s a bit like Miss Pennsylvania and Miss New York teaming up to determine who may qualify in the annual Miss America beauty pageant. Not surprisingly, many voices in the country expressed outrage over the change.
“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate … because the demands of the two campaign organizations [Democrats and Republicans] would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” LWV President Nancy M. Neuman said in a news release dated October 3, 1988.
“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions,” Neuman continued. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
Perhaps the most mischievous demand laid down by the CPD is that would-be third party or independent candidates must attract at least 15% support across five national polls to be included on the debate stage. Considering that the polls are typically organized by the media and other organizations that have no small political ax to grind, this opens the floodgates for all sorts of dangerous shenanigans, both real and imagined.
Take for example the 1992 presidential election. Despite allegations of media bias, Texas businessman Ross Perot and his running mate, James Stockdale, managed to garner enough support in the polls to participate in the debates against the Clinton-Gore (Democrat) and Bush-Quayle (Republican) tickets. But barely. Since then, no third-party or independent candidate has been allowed to share the stage with the Republican and Democratic candidates. But certainly not for lack of trying. In fact, several presidential hopefuls, with a large base of support, have been imprisoned trying to rock the boat.
On October 8, 2004, two presidential candidates, Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik and Green Party candidate David Cobb, were arrested while protesting against CPD for excluding third-party candidates from the nationally televised debates sponsored by Arizona State University. The Libertarians filed a lawsuit, contending that the university had broken the law by donating $2 million in public funds to the debate, while prohibiting other legitimate candidates from participating in the “open” event. While the lawsuit had some merit, the courts tossed out the claims, saying the debates would provide “educational value.”
Clearly, the establishment enjoys multiple ways of damaging a candidate’s prospects of reaching the magical threshold – from conducting outright media smear campaigns, to simply reducing the airtime given to the candidate’s political platform. And if the last decade has taught Americans anything, it is that a candidate need not be a Donald Trump to suffer unfair treatment at the hands of the media.
In the run-up to 2012 presidential election, Ron Paul, who campaigned on the highly controversial ‘ending the Federal Reserve’ platform, was routinely shunned by the media talking heads despite placing second at one point among Republican nominees. Things got so bad that the comedian/political pundit John Stewart put together a compilation on this glaring media bias that demonstrates the raw power of the fourth estate in driving the election process.
The last time the CPD faced a serious legal challenge was in 2020 when the Libertarian and Green parties, led by nonprofit group Level the Playing Field, made an unsuccessful bid to sue the Federal Election Commission. The groups argued that the CPD is “not remotely non-partisan,” but instead works to keep third parties on the margins.
“Its leadership has always consisted of Republican and Democratic insiders – party chairs, former elected officials, top aides, party donors and lobbyists,” the brief states. “These staunch partisans endorse Republican and Democratic candidates, lavish them with high-dollar contributions… and accept undisclosed contributions from corporations that buy influence with the major parties using the CPD as a conduit.”
Presidential debates became a regular feature of American elections in the 1960 televised showdown between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The debate was watched by 70 million Americans and, according to the National Constitution Center, it “made politics an electronic spectator sport.” It also gave voters an opportunity to see presidential candidates in a live environment, as potential leaders on the national and global stage.
Unfortunately, independent aspirants to the White House – like JFK’s nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has entered the 2024 presidential election as an independent and possible ‘spoiler’ – will find it increasingly difficult to make it to the ‘live stage’ of the contests with so much at stake.
Whether this is the year that the CPD will finally be exposed for its iron grip on the US democratic process, or it will remain bipartisan politics as usual, remains to be seen.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.