Obama and Romney agree, tonight’s debate will be a town hall in name only

Photo courtesy of nola.com

Our presidential debates are brought to you by Bud Light.  – George Farah, executive director of Open Debates

“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] the Commission shall take appropriate steps to cut-off the microphone.”

The above quote comes from a 21-page “Memorandum of Understanding” between the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which sounds like an official body but isn’t, and the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The secret agreement, which Time magazine’s Mark Halperin published Monday, lays out in detail what the candidates, moderators and audience members can and cannot do at each of the presidential and vice-presidential debates, including tonight’s “town hall” at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.

CNN’s Candy Crowley will moderate tonight’s debate, sort of. Crowley recently laid out her vision for her role as moderator. “Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, Z?’” she said. Crowley’s understanding of her role, however, doesn’t square with the agreement between the Commission and the two campaigns.  

“The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates,” according to the agreement. “In managing the [candidates'] two-minute comment periods, the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic.”

Appearing on Democracy Now Tuesday morning, George Farah, executive director of Open Debates and author of No Debate, said of Crowley, “She’s essentially reduced to keeping time and being the lady with the microphone.” Farah continued, “There is something ugly about having the League of Women Voters losing control of the presidential debates to the Commission, co-chaired by two men, who then reduce all female moderators to kind of side shows.”

For years, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters successfully hosted the televised presidential debates. For the duopoly, this was a problem. Why should a bunch of women determine which candidates are able to reach tens of millions of American households?

The straw that broke the donkey’s and elephant’s backs came in 1980 when the League allowed independent presidential candidate John Anderson into the debate. Unlike a majority of Americans, Jimmy Carter didn’t want Anderson included, so he boycotted the debate. Thoughtfully, the League left room for the president, and 55 million viewers watched Anderson debate Ronald Reagan and Carter’s empty chair. Four years later, both parties were embarrassed when the League went public with Reagan’s and Walter Mondale’s rejection of their 80 suggested debate moderators.

For the Democrats and Republicans it had become clear that these women had gotten out of hand. Something had to be done, and soon. In 1986, the two parties ratified an agreement “to take over the presidential debates.” A year later, the CPD was formed, with the Republican and Democratic party chairs heading it up.

For the 1988 presidential contest, the CPD, in conjunction with the campaigns of George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, offered the League a poison pill: agree to a long list of debate conditions or get lost. True to form, the League went public. “The demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter… The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public,” responded the nonpartisan group.

With the League out and the CPD in, corporate dollars started flowing. While it had been difficult for the League to raise $5,000 to host a debate, the CPD has hauled in millions from sponsorships. Farah has a problem with this practice, and he’s not alone. An email and letter writing campaign spearheaded by Open Debates has led to three of the CPD’s ten sponsors backing out over the past weeks, which is unprecedented.

“As a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all, we have decided to withdraw our sponsorship immediately,” wrote Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, CEO of YWCA.

“We respect all points of view and, as a result, want to ensure that Philips doesn’t provide even the slightest appearance of supporting partisan politics. As such, no company funds have been or will be used to support the Commission on Presidential Debates,” wrote Mark Stephenson, a spokesperson for the tech giant Philips North America.

The advertising agency BBH also withdrew their support, leaving seven sponsors: Anheuser-Busch; Southwest Airlines; International Bottled Water Association (IBWA); The Howard G. Buffet Foundation; Crowell & Moring LLP; Sheldon S. Cohen, Esq; The Kovler Fund.

Tonight, at a carefully orchestrated, corporate-funded event, Obama and Romney will answer questions submitted in advance by audience members and pre-selected by a moderator whose role is limited. The candidates are unlikely to face difficult follow up questions either from the town-hall questioner, the moderator, or from one another, as the agreement states, “The candidates may not ask each other direct questions.”

“Robust debate on the critical issues of the day only strengthens democracy,” Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, wrote in her weekly column. Tonight, beginning at 8 p.m. EST and tomorrow at 8 a.m., Democracy Now will continue “expanding the debate” by interviewing those seldom heard in the corporate media, including third-party candidates like Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party.

“This is what democracy sounds like,” said Goodman. “Open the debates.”

Related stories:
Rocky Anderson Seeks to Occupy the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011

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