Institutionalizing Presidential Debates

Institutionalizing Presidential Debates

In an NBC interview in 1962, Richard Nixon declared that "debates between the presidential candidates are a fixture, and in all the elections in the future we are going to have debates." In truth, however, no debates occurred in the next three campaigns, and Nixon himself had a hand in forestalling debates in two of the three, 1968 and 1972. "It's poor tactics when you're running so far ahead," the plain-spoken Spiro Agnew told reporters in 1968.

Candidates did debate in 1976 and in every presidential election since, but only after haggling over timing, format, questioners, camera angles, risers, notes, stools, props, and a host of other issues. The League of Women Voters, which sponsored the 1980 debates, said that the Carter and Reagan campaigns negotiated "to the minutest detail" and "threatened to walk away from debating at many turns if they did not get what they wanted."

This ritualized "debate over debates" unfortunately dominates news coverage, noted Clifford M. Sloan, coauthor of the Twentieth Century Fund report For Great Debates. "At the very time when the public is tuning into the campaign and the candidates," he said, "the media coverage is consumed with reports about the positioning and bickering and jousting."

But others at the conference on presidential debates responded that this jousting is inescapable, even worthwhile. Presidential Debates Commission cochair Paul G. Kirk, Jr., said that the voters "learned a lot" from the candidates' posturing in 1992. Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter said that no matter how extensive the preplanning may be, disputes will inevitably arise over debate structure and format; the press, with its insatiable appetite for campaign news, will play up these disputes. "If there isn't a good debate over debates," he said, "the press will essentially create one." "It's unavoidable," agreed Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN, "and the bright side of it is, it reminds people to tune in."

Sloan also contended that the brinkmanship raises "the very real threat that there will be no debates." Even though the candidates in the last five elections have ultimately reached accord on debate plans, negotiations may not always succeed. Sooner or later, intransigence, ill will, or a fundamental dispute could preclude debates.

Growing out of two studies, a possible solution to this problem emerged in the mid-1980s: the creation of an independent organization to sponsor presidential debates. With seed money from the Twentieth Century Fund, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates was formed in 1987. Its cochairs are former Republican National Committee chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., and former Democratic National Committee chairman Paul Kirk. "The thought was," Sloan said, "that the bipartisan commission would be able to hammer out the details and logistics of the debate well in advance of the heat of the campaign, and that the candidates would commit themselves to the arrangements."

But the Commission's effect on the process hasn't proved quite so soothing. For 1988, the Commission proposed three presidential debates and one vice- presidential debate. The Bush campaign summarily rejected the plan and proceeded to negotiate directly with the Dukakis campaign. They agreed on two presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, which the Commission sponsored.

Planning for the 1992 debates followed the same pattern. The Commission proposed three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, each with a single moderator. The Clinton campaign accepted the plan, but the Bush campaign rejected it. "We did not like the proposal," said Bobby R. Burchfield, general counsel of the Bush campaign. "Historically, the presidential campaigns had negotiated with each other to set the terms of the debates. That's what we were after."

Representatives of the two campaigns ultimately met to negotiate, with no Commission representatives present. Of the principal issues -- when, where, and how the debates would be held -- when proved to be the major sticking point. The Clinton campaign wanted early debates, whereas the Bush campaign wanted debates close to the election. "Those were the subject of about thirty-six hours of jousting," Burchfield remembered. "Once we got the schedule nailed down, everything else began to fall into place very quickly." The thirty-six page final agreement called for four debates in a nine-day period, commencing in less than two weeks. The debates would feature four different formats, and they would include independent candidate H. Ross Perot.

The Bush and Clinton campaigns then invited the Commission to sponsor the agreed-upon debates. Initially the Commission was unsure about whether, on such short notice, it would be able to orchestrate one of the planned debates, a town hall format with citizen questioners. The Commission also had doubts about whether Perot, whose support was down to about 7 percent in the polls, qualified for inclusion. Ultimately, though, the Commission agreed to hew to the candidates' plan and sponsor the debates.

This successful outcome was hardly foreordained. The candidates' last-minute negotiations could have deadlocked over timing, Perot's participation, or other issues. Even after the campaigns had reached accord, "these debates almost didn't get on the air because the decisions were made so late," said Robert McFarland, deputy to the president of NBC News. Because of an existing contractual obligation to broadcast a baseball game, in fact, CBS was unable to carry the first debate.

The haphazard nature of the 1992 process thus raises the question of whether the status quo is sufficient. Should something more be done to institutionalize debates?

Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) believes so. Markey has introduced legislation to require candidates to debate as a condition of receiving federal campaign funds. Under this proposal, a campaign could get the $55 million in federal funds for the general election only by agreeing to take part in five debates (four presidential and one vice-presidential). In Markey's view, participating in debates "is the least the candidates can do" in exchange for federal funds.

Former independent candidate John Anderson endorsed the Markey bill, though he said he wished it provided for the inclusion of independent candidates in the mandatory debates. He agreed with Markey that "the taxpayers of this country have a right to expect that candidates will be willing to engage in public debate" in exchange for federal funding.

Others, however, found fault with the bill on several grounds. Forcing someone to speak, even if only as a condition of receiving a government benefit, raises serious First Amendment questions. In light of the accelerating changes in technology and programming, legislation might shackle candidates to a structure that will quickly be outmoded. "If such legislation is deemed to be appropriate," said Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Barone Center at Harvard, "can language be found to compel participation only for 1996, and then come back with parallel legislation in '97 if it all goes well?" In addition, the statute might prove unenforceable as a practical matter, given the Federal Election Commission's (FEC) slow pace.

In addition, the legislation may be unnecessary. "Debates are already institutionalized," said Bev Lindsey of the Clinton campaign. The Bush campaign's Burchfield agreed, saying that "the American people now have come to expect and demand debates." When he was perceived to be ducking debates, President Bush was dogged by Clinton supporters wearing chicken costumes; the effect, Frank Fahrenkopf said, was "disastrous" for the Bush campaign.

Instead of mandating debates, some people favor retooling the Commission on Presidential Debates. "A bipartisan commission is inadequate when a Ross Perot is running," said Kalb. "It is not a bi- or tripartisan commission that is needed, but a neutral commission composed of representatives of both major parties, network executives, scholarly experts, and representatives of other full-blown presidential campaigns." Ross Clayton Mulford, the Perot campaign's general counsel, also favored a "nonpartisan or independent" commission. It should include representatives of even "the small and fringe-party candidates," he said, because the major parties may "have a vested interest in preventing the rise of third parties." John Anderson proposed a different approach: a nonpartisan Corporation for Presidential Debates, modeled on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with a board composed of distinguished citizens.

But others consider such changes pointless. "With respect to the composition of the Commission, it really makes no difference, though it makes a very convenient whipping boy," said Paul Kirk, cochair of the Commission. "It's not who serves; it's how they serve and how they conduct their business."

Another proposal is to shift control of the debates to the networks, which sponsored the 1960 debates. In September 1991, the networks offered to sponsor the 1992 debates. Then the Commission stepped forward with its plan, which became the focus of discussions. "While we worked together and worked together well," said Joe Peyronnin, vice president and assistant to the president of CBS News, "I'm disappointed that the candidates were able to manipulate and control these important events."

But Richard C. Wald, senior vice president of ABC News, said that the networks shouldn't constrain the presidential candidates: "It is not our job to tell the candidates what to do."

Yet another approach is to try to strengthen the Commission's hand. "Would it help if the Democratic and Republican parties renewed their commitment to presidential debates and expressed their support for the Commission on Presidential Debates?" asked Clifford Sloan. "Would it help if the parties included in their platforms planks requiring their candidates to participate in presidential debates?"

Not very much, suggested Bev Lindsey of the Clinton campaign. Institutionalized though debates are, she said, the campaigns and the candidates still "want to be intimately involved" in planning them.


Bev Lindsey
Debate Coordinator, Clinton/Gore Campaign

The debate format that turned out to be the most popular was the town hall meeting, which was not in the Commission's proposal. The Commission staff was not pleased when we presented the plan to them. It was a format that they had not produced before, and no one was sure about lights, sound, how it would all work. But we were fairly adamant.

To their credit, it was pulled off without a hitch. If we hadn't had the Commission behind us, with all the technological and infrastructure issues dealt with ahead of time, I'm not sure we would have been able to pull it off.

Ross Clayton Mulford
General Counsel, United We Stand America (Perot)

We joined the race on Thursday, October 1. The Commission was meeting that Friday and Saturday to decide whether we should be in the debates. We made repeated calls to [Commission executive director] Janet Brown, which she, probably intelligently, stopped taking.

We then turned our attention to the two campaigns. By Monday morning we received a fax draft of the agreement. It specified that both we and the Commission would be invited on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. So I issued a press release and filed a letter accepting the invitation, inquiring as to whether the Commis-sion had also accepted, and suggesting that we would find another sponsor if need be.

It was absolutely appropriate for us to be in the debates. I think the popularity of the debates was in no small part due to Mr. Perot's presence.

Paul G. Kirk, Jr.
Cochair, Commission on Presidential Debates

The Commission has an independent, arm's-length advisory committee to decide on the criteria for inviting candidates to participate in presidential debates. I wasn't in the room when this committee met, but I can imagine people saying, "Ross Perot has more money than Bill Clinton and George Bush combined. He was leading them both in the polls in his first incarnation. Now he's back and he says he's going to spend $5 million for two half-hours before the debates. He's at 7 percent in the polls, but no doubt there is a Perot phenomenon out there."


Edward J. Markey
U.S. House of Representatives (D-Mass.)

The debates are truly a national event. Like the Super Bowl and the World Series, they give Americans a sense of a shared experience. And they build a sense of enthusiasm and anticipation about the election, drawing people to the polls.

Unfortunately, it has not been smooth sailing. There were no debates between 1964 and 1972, and each year since 1980, the debates have been threatened by campaign posturing. This year the Bush campaign spent weeks avoiding debates, only to embrace them at the last minute.

Senator Bob Graham of Florida and I have a solution to this quad-rennial wrangle. Within the next several days we will reintroduce our bill that requires campaigns that take federal funds to engage in four presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. Last year voters shelled out $110 million in general-election funds. It seems to me that five debates is the least the candidates can do in return.

The voters want these debates, and the reluctance of the major parties to embrace them is one of the reasons that too many voters have lost faith in the political process.

Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr.
Cochair, Commission on Presidential Debates

I've looked at Congressman Markey's bill, and I'm against it for two reasons.

If we want to keep politics out of the negotiations for presidential debates, we certainly don't want Congress setting, by statute, the provisions for debates. The original bill in the last Congress actually stated how long the debates were going to be, the subject matter, and so forth.

Secondly, and more importantly, candidates have a First Amendment right not to debate. They have to bear the consequences of that. If you don't want to debate, that's fine -- but you'd better be prepared to tell the American people why not, and they'll pass judgment.

Bobby R. Burchfield
General Counsel, Bush/Quayle Campaign

The intentions are good, but Congressman Markey's legislation raises a number of very difficult problems.

First, who determines what is a reasonable package of presidential debates? Unless the federal government is going to set up or statutorily sanction a commission to supervise these debates, numerous entities will submit proposals.

Second, if a statutory entity is created, it would assume the responsibility for setting the locations, times, formats, panelists, and moderators of the debates. The presidential candidates themselves have historically held this authority, and I believe that most of them would be reluctant to relinquish it.

Finally, under the bill, the Federal Election Commission determines whether a candidate has fulfilled his pledge to debate. Those of you who have dealt with the FEC know that speed is not something it is known for. Moreover, bear in mind that the candidates are rapidly spending the money. There is simply no way that you can get it back once the candidates have it in their hands.