CommunityThe Dissenter

Leaked 2012 Presidential Debates Contract: Few Critical Points Worth Raising

(Flickr Photo by Barack Obama)

A copy of the secret debate contract the campaigns for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney drew up for the 2012 presidential debates has leaked. TIME has posted it. The contract includes express limitations related to other candidates qualifying for debates, not publicly calling or participating in additional debates, not mentioning people in the audience beyond family members or not addressing questions to each or asking candidates to take pledges.

It is what should be expected from candidates from the two most prominent political parties in America, which wrested control of the debates from the League of Women Voters back in the 1980s. The two parties launched the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which has conducted itself like the corrupt organization it was destined to become by working to exclude third party candidates, debate moderators and key issues/topics for decades now.

The contract shows no one is to “issue any challenges for additional debates” or “appear at any other debate or adversarial forums except as agreed to by the parties.” They are also not to “accept any television or radio air time offers that involve a debate format or otherwise involve the simultaneous appearance of more than one candidate.” What this means is that when news programs like “Democracy Now!” or HuffPost Live hold debates or CNN host Don Lemon hosts does a segment where third party candidates are invited, neither Obama nor Romney can participate because of this agreement. They also cannot accept invitations from the NAACP to participate in forums or groups like Free and Equal, which is committed to openness and fairness in elections. The two campaigns agree to close off debate and limit democracy in the election.

If candidates outside of Obama or Romney are “invited to participate,” they must sign the secret contract and agree to these terms. Should they refuse, they cannot be part of the debate. Someone like Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein might get a bump and have enough support in a poll to be in a debate but, if they refuse to cooperate with a organization with such a shady history, they will not get to go before an audience and share their platform.

As mentioned above, candidates are not permitted to reference people in the audience. They also cannot use props, notes or other writings during the debate (something Romney has already been accused of doing). If this is done, the moderator is supposed to remind the offending candidate he signed an agreement and is violating debate rules, which in the scheme of things is pretty ridiculous. If a candidate wants to read from notes, let the candidate read from notes. Audiences may find this to be weak and it could hurt the candidate in the polls. Or, it might make it possible to raise a key point and people watching would benefit. (Note: They are allowed to take notes.)

The moderator is to use “any reasonable method to ensure that the agreed-upon format” is followed by the candidates and the audience. Of course, the moderators are establishment news media personalities like Jim Lehrer, Candy Crowley or Bob Schieffer. They are not likely to be too aggressive, passionate or creative in their enforcement. Actually, as seen in the first debate, they are likely to be walked all over as they try to get the candidates to respect the agreement that the two candidates have an equitable amount of time to speak. (One could argue lack of other candidates like Johnson or Stein only makes this worse because candidates can quickly descend into bickering matches as if they are siblings.)

For the town hall debate, the contract instructs the moderator to go through a cumbersome process of approving audience questions prior to the debate for the benefit of the candidates, who would not want to be caught off guard by a question the carefully selected media personality had not finessed and sanitized for public consumption:

…Prior to the start of the debate, audience members will be asked to submit their questions in writing to the moderator. No third party, including the Commission and the campaigns, shall be permitted to see the questions. The moderator shall ensure that the audience members post to the canddiates a balance of questions on foreign policy and national security, on the one hand, and domestic and economic policy on the other. The moderator will further review the questions and eliminate any questions that the moderator deems inappropriate. At least seven (7) days before the October 16 (Second Presidential-Town Hall) debate, the moderator shall develop, and describe to the campaigns, a method for selecting questions at random while assuring that questions are reasonably well balanced in terms of addressing a wide range of issues of major public interest facing the United States and the world. Each question will be asked by the audience member submitting the question. If any audience member poses a question or makes a statement that is in any material way different than the question that the audience member earlier submitted to the moderator for review, the moderator will cut-off the questioner and advise the audience that such non-reviewed questions are not permitted. Moreover the Commission shall take appropriate steps to cut-off the microphone of any such audience member who attempts to pose any question or statement differently than that previously posed to the moderator for review. The moderator will inform the audience of this provision prior to the start of the debate… [emphasis added]

In essence, audience members will be publicly embarrassed for daring to confront candidates without the permission of Candy Crowley. (She is the host of the town hall debate.)

Gallup, the polling organization, will select the audience. These aren’t necessarily the people who showed up wanting to attend the debate but rather people Gallup approved for attendance through some secret “selection methodology,” which the campaigns approved.

At no point are viewers at home to be able to discern how the audience is responding to the candidates. The contract reads:

…TV coverage during the question and answer period shall be limited to shots of the candidates or moderator, and in no case shall any television shots be taken of any member of the audience (including candidates’ family members) from the time the first question is asked until the conclusion of the closing statements, if any…

There are also to be no cut-aways to candidates not answering a question or not giving a closing statement. This is why candidates are shown in a split-screen on television. That is not prohibited in the agreement and is also not a cut-away. In any case, the campaigns mean to limit viewers’ ability to react to body language.

There is nothing in the “leaked” secret contract on third party candidates, beyond the note that additional qualified candidates must sign the CPD agreement. The selection criteria, however, is posted on the CPD website. It makes clear a candidate must be “constitutionally eligible, “appear on enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority in the 2012 general election” and  have a level of support of at least 15% “of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recent publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.”

As George Farah of said on “Democracy Now!”:

…Due to explicit criticism of the commission in 1992 and 1996 and an investigation by the Federal Election Commission, the commission was forced to adopt a numerical figure as a kind of decision making at what point third-party candidates could actually be allowed to participate in the presidential debates. So they have announced that if a third-party candidate or any candidate gets 15 percent of the polls, that they will invite them to a presidential debate. Fifteen percent of the polls—Amy, that’s crazy. There hasn’t been a third-party candidate in the last 100 years that’s gotten close to 15 percent in the polls prior to any sort of presidential debate. It’s ridiculously high. Congress gives candidates millions of dollars of taxpayer funds if they win 5 percent of the popular vote. How is it that we can actually subsidize a candidate, yet they need three times that level of support just to get in these presidential debates?…

The selection criteria is why Johnson took the step of filing an antitrust lawsuit against the CPD. According to the Los Angeles Times, the suit argues the Republican and Democratic national committees engaged in a conspiracy by meeting and creating rules for the debates in secret, which exclude third-party candidates. It also alleges they participated in a “restraint of trade” that violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. (The challenge is different from a challenge brought by Ralph Nader that argued the CPD was violating the Federal Election Campaign Act by endorsing, supporting or opposing political candidates or political parties.)

Tomorrow, during the second presidential debate, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson will not be on stage. A functioning democratic society would not tolerate a political process where these individuals were not treated fairly. At minimum, each general election cycle would begin with a debate with all candidates that were on enough state ballots to assume the presidency and were registering a percentage of support in national polls. That would typically be four to six people and not unreasonable.

Regardless of whether the rigged system makes it possible for them to win or not, they should not be excluded. Secret contracts have no place in any society claiming to have fair elections. And, the CPD—which is a symptom of the bipartisan racket that is US elections—should be dissolved. It does not encourage open, free and fair politics but rather exists to protect the status quo or current order that benefits the richest one percent and the guardians of the national security state.

*Tune into “Democracy Now!” as they expand the debate Wednesday morning after the second presidential debate with Jill Stein, Rocky Anderson and Virgil Goode, who will answer questions they should have been asked personally the previous night.

Previous post

Late Night: Aspiring to Assholery

Next post

Late, Late Night FDL: (You Can Still) Rock in America

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."