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While U.S. law enforcement and investigative agencies prevented a New
Year’s Eve terrorist attack on our coast-to-coast celebrations, reports
are surfacing that they may have missed the latest preparations by a
little known group to undermine our democratic way of life.
The group reportedly held a series of secret strategy meetings in the
week leading up to the new millennium. Heavily guarded (by its allies in
the media) and heavily funded (by corporations who receive a tax
deduction for their contributions) this group has been plotting the
overthrow of democratic elections since 1987. That year, it brutishly
stomped a respected women’s organization, coaxed the IRS into giving it
tax-exempt status and set out on its destructive path.
Who is this group? It goes by the initials CPD (for the Commission on
Presidential Debates) to give itself the imprimatur of a
quasi-governmental body in order to fool the public. This CPD is nothing
but a front group, controlled by a small clique of Washington insiders
with a cultish devotion to the Democratic and Republican parties.
This week the CPD will surface to present its new guidelines — the
criteria by which presidential candidates will be admitted to a series
of nationally televised debates in the fall.
Co-chaired by Frank Fahrenkopf (former Chairman of the Republican
National Committee) and Paul Kirk (former Chairman of the Democratic
National Committee), the CPD has been the sponsor of the major
presidential debates since 1992. That year the commission determined
that independent candidate Ross Perot qualified for inclusion in the
debates, staging the first three-way presidential debates in U.S.
history and driving the audience up to the highest levels ever recorded
since televised presidential debates began in 1960. (In 1980, before the
CPD came into existence, independent John Anderson was invited to debate
Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter. Carter refused to participate
and so Reagan and Anderson went one-on-one.)
The 1992 decision to admit Perot was based on several factors. The
CPD, having edged out the League of Women Voters, felt pressure to
appear as a neutral arbiter of the debates, particularly in light of the
fact that it was structurally bipartisan, not nonpartisan. Given that
Perot was a significant candidate with a competitive amount of money to
spend on his campaign, there was an inclination toward including him.
Plus, neither political party felt they could accurately predict the
impact that Perot’s presence might have. Bill Clinton had made an
impassioned and explicit appeal to the Perot voter in his acceptance
speech at the Democratic National Convention in the summer and Perot
promptly dropped out of the race saying the viability of the Democratic
Party had been restored. Perot got back into the race in October, in
time for the debates, but his polling numbers had plummeted. Clinton
believed that Perot was neutralized by that point and would pull only
from disgruntled Republicans.
George Bush hoped that he would be helped by having another candidate
on stage and that the combination of the philandering 1960s-ish
hillbilly and the “hokey,” temperamental billionaire would make him look
more presidential. Neither party objected and so Perot got the CPD’s
However, the results were more than anyone at the CPD bargained for.
Perot got 20 million votes, spurred the highest voter turnout (55
percent) since 1980, drew roughly equally, according to exit polls, from
Clinton and Bush, and connected the dots around a new and vigorous
voting bloc in American politics — the independent.
It was not hard to figure out what was going to happen next. The CPD
was going to close ranks behind its two party sponsors. The independents
made what moves we could to forestall the inevitable lockout. Attorneys
who had represented me in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the CPD’s
tax exemption (on the grounds that it was bipartisan and not
nonpartisan) testified before the Federal Election Commission in an
effort to procure new rules that required the use of objective criteria
for inclusion. The FEC adopted such a rule, but left the content of
those criteria in the hands of the CPD.
In 1996, the CPD determined that Ross Perot and his vice-presidential
running mate Pat Choate did not meet its criteria that participants must
have a realistic chance of winning the election. Perot was on the ballot
in all 50 states and had $30 million in public money to spend, but a
panel of “experts” determined he wasn’t viable.
Conservative columnist George F. Will commented on the CPD’s 1996
actions in the New York Post in September 1999 where he wrote,
- Basing exclusion on self-fulfilling prophecies would be bad
enough. But exclusion actually was a deal struck by the Dole and Clinton
campaigns. A third candidate usually hurts one of the major party
candidates more than the other and Perot particularly hurt Dole. Clinton
was ahead and wanted soporific debates. George Stephanopolous, then a
Clinton aide, said after the election, “We didn’t want (people) to pay
attention. … We wanted the debates to be a nonevent.”
Will’s column reveals a staggering (un)principle of two party
politics in America: Do what’s best for your candidate, not what’s good
for the voters. If democracy is corrupted in the process, so be it.
This year, the CPD must be put to a serious acid test. It is
anticipated that it will set its criteria for inclusion at 1) being on
the ballot in enough states to secure a sufficient number of electoral
college votes to win the presidency and 2) showing at 15 percent or more
in national polls. The CPD hopes that these criteria will pass muster
with the public and with the courts as “objective” while preserving the
dominance of the Republican and Democratic Parties.
But in 2000 the CPD has a new set of circumstances it must take into
account. Though Perot and Choate were excluded from the 1996 debates,
they did manage to poll 8.5 percent of the vote — above the 5 percent
threshold needed to create a recognized minor party. That party — the
Reform Party — will receive $13 million in taxpayer money for its
nominee. The question for the CPD is how its criteria take the status of
this new party into account, but the “15 percent in the polls” standard
doesn’t do that.
Their polls tell you who people plan to vote for — before they’ve
seen the candidates in nationally televised debates. Arguably such polls
are just reflections of the bias of the system, of who has been deemed
credible, newsworthy or viable by the media, which so significantly
shapes public opinion based on the two party bias. To use those polls to
determine entry means the voters are pre-empted by the official opinion
makers, and the debates merely reinforce the status quo.
For the CPD to move away from such highly “subjective” objective
criteria as “newsworthy” and “realistic chance of winning” to hard
numbers — like 15 percent in the polls — the polling question itself
needs to be restructured. The relevant polling question is whether
Americans want the candidate of a newly qualified, taxpayer-funded minor
party in the debates. The American people should have the opportunity to
state whether they want the option to consider a third candidate. Isn’t
that what the debates are supposed to be for? Helping the voters decide,
not deciding for them?
Recent polls by the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard show that 43
percent of Americans want a third party candidate in the race, even if a
reformer is already running. The pollsters were reportedly surprised by
these results, believing that having John McCain and/or Bill Bradley in
the picture meant that public concern with the corruption and negativity
of the political process would be adequately represented in the
presidential contest. Apparently, nearly half the American people don’t
feel that way. No wonder more than half of us aren’t voting in national
I wasn’t surprised by those results. They merely corroborate the
views of millions of Americans — namely that two-party control over the
political process must be undone. The presidential debates and the rules
of the CPD are critical battlefields for this fight.