Overthrow the Debate Commission

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Tonight’s presidential debate will be a failure. Not because of the moderator’s questions, or the candidates' answers, or the size of the television audience. The debate will enable millions of Americans to learn something useful about the two people who want to lead their country.

Rather, the debate will fail because it has been designed -- rigged, even -- to benefit the two major parties and networks instead of the voters. It’s not too early to start thinking about 2020 and how to avoid a repeat of the mistakes made this year by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The debate commission is a nonprofit organization that operates mostly in secret. It holds no public hearings, deliberations or votes on crucial matters affecting the debates, such as eligibility requirements, formats and rules. It has no written standards for selecting debate dates, and it has no public nomination process for joining the commission. Despite playing a highly public role in the election process, it holds itself above public scrutiny.

The nub of the problem is that the commission is beholden to the two major parties, which created it prior to the 1988 elections. It remains -- unofficially, of course -- their handmaiden. Its co-chairs are former officials of the two parties’ national committees.

This year, a group of civic and military leaders from across the political spectrum led a campaign to open the debates to independent or third-party candidates, but the commission once again set eligibility criteria that all but ensured their exclusion. The public would have been better served by more flexible criteria, with a relatively low threshold for the first debate that would be raised for each of the two subsequent debates. Instead, the commission applied a uniform standard -- 15 percent in national polls -- that not even Ross Perot, who eventually won 19 percent of the vote, would have met in 1992.

This month, the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, suggested that the commission’s tax-exempt status could be revoked, since the group effectively functions as an appendage of the two major parties. It’s a fair point, and one the IRS ought to examine.

Excluding third-party candidates is not the only way that the commission has failed voters this year. The commission also seemed more concerned with not interfering with the networks’ usual prime-time programming than with selecting dates that would maximize viewers and listeners. Partly as a result, each presidential debate will conflict with a nationally televised National Football League game.

Over the past three decades, the commission has performed a valuable public service by institutionalizing presidential debates. But the commission has become too captive to entrenched partisan interests. Four years from now, it would be far better for debates to be organized by a more open, independent and publicly accountable body.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.