The debate debacle

To become president of the United States, you must participate in the nationally televised debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Everyone agrees on this. There's just one problem: If you're not a Democrat or Republican, the debates are about as accessible as those 18 minutes of missing tape from Richard Nixon's office.

The reason is simple, critics say. While touting its nonpartisanship, the CPD, which decides who is eligible, is really a collaborative effort by the Democratic and Republican parties to make sure no one else gets to debate.

"Excluding someone from the debate is not an objective, neutral act," says American University constitutional-law professor Jamin Raskin, who represented Ross Perot in his complaint against the Federal Elections Commission about the debate criteria in 1996. "It's an aggressive political intervention into the dynamics of the campaign."

The CPD was formed in 1987 specifically to take over the presidential and vice presidential debates from the League of Women Voters. A nonprofit and, at least on paper, nonpartisan group, it sponsored all the debates in 1988, 1992 and 1996.

In 1996, eligible candidates had to meet more than 10 criteria. The 2000 debates have three criteria. Each candidate must be an American citizen at least 35 years old, have a mathematical chance of winning at least 270 electoral votes, and have an approval rating that averages at least 15 percent, using five national opinion polls chosen by the commission.

Raskin and others believe this approach is illegal, because excluding certain candidates effectively makes the various corporate sponsorships of the debates illegal corporate contributions or expenditures. (Under federal elections law, corporations are not allowed to donate money to political campaigns.)

The commission selected Anheuser-Busch as national sponsor of the four debates for the 2000 elections and sole sponsor of the debate scheduled for Oct. 17 at Washington University in St. Louis. The company will pay $550,000 to underwrite the St. Louis debate.

Raskin is blunt about what this means. "This is the largest soft-money loophole of them all," he says. "Essentially we have corporate America deciding who is a serious candidate and who's not, and dictating that to the American public.'

At the very least, debate critics say, the polling threshold should be the 5 percent mark required to gain federal matching funds. Right now any party that garners 5 percent of the national vote automatically qualifies for federal funding in the next election. It is Nader's hope to accomplish this task for the Green Party. "The commission waved it magic wand and tripled that figure" as part of its review process after the 1996 debate, Raskin says.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura is cited to show the importance of debates. He was around 10 percent in the state's polls before the debate. Participating enabled him to win.

The 15 percent figure is fair and was arrived at after much research, says CPD director Janet Brown. Lowering it to 5 percent would simply let too many people in, she says, noting that nearly 150 people are on various state ballots.

"The mission of the commission is to sponsor debates to inform American people of the candidates who are likely to be chosen," she says. "It is the belief of the board it needs to be a small group that reflect where American support has gathered."

Brown concedes that most of those 150 would never meet the 5 percent threshold.

Adds commission media director John Scardino: "The purpose of the debate is never to promote a candidacy or inhibit a candidacy. The point is to have a full debate. You have to draw the line somewhere."

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