Party Crashers

Ralph Nader tries to derail the corporate-sponsored presidential debates with a lawsuit. Protesters have their own plans to disrupt the Bush-Gore affair at Wash. U.

On Oct. 11, 1992, about 600 people filled the Washington University fieldhouse for the first presidential debate of the campaign season. Students not fortunate enough to be invited to the momentous event watched a live broadcast at the nearby Edison Theatre. Hundreds more observed the contest on a large-screen TV set up in the university's quadrangle. Off campus, more than 100 million television viewers tuned in nationwide. By all counts, the hosting of the spectacle brought honor and prestige to St. Louis and prompted the university to laud itself for being a bastion of American democracy. The claim bore merit, if for no other reason than the unexpected outcome.

In a Gallup Poll taken immediately after the debate, 47 percent of viewers believed Ross Perot -- the third-party candidate -- had outperformed both Republican incumbent George Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. The Texas billionaire's homespun humor and pithy jabs managed to poke holes in the major-party candidates' bombastic rhetoric. Buoyed by Perot's success in St. Louis, his popularity ratings nearly doubled in the final weeks before the election. The populist candidate ended up netting more than 18 percent of the total votes cast that November, making his presidential bid a contributing factor in Clinton's victory.

History is not likely to repeat itself in this case. That's because the debates' producers figured it was in their self-interest to orchestrate a two-man show. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), chaired by former leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties -- and paid for by the major corporations that traditionally bankroll their candidates -- decided to keep the stage to themselves.

Green Party nominee Ralph Nader (right) is challenging corporate funding of presidential debates, including one scheduled in St. Louis on Oct. 17. He wants to square off with major-party candidates Al Gore (left) and George W. Bush (center).
Green Party nominee Ralph Nader (right) is challenging corporate funding of presidential debates, including one scheduled in St. Louis on Oct. 17. He wants to square off with major-party candidates Al Gore (left) and George W. Bush (center).
Pollster Ken Warren of St. Louis University: 
"To say that they should have 15 percent popularity in the polls before they’re included in the debates is patently outrageous, because virtually no third-party candidate, at the beginning of a campaign, could ever hope to have 15 percent."
Pollster Ken Warren of St. Louis University: "To say that they should have 15 percent popularity in the polls before they’re included in the debates is patently outrageous, because virtually no third-party candidate, at the beginning of a campaign, could ever hope to have 15 percent."

In 1996, the CPD laid down the law, albeit a vague one: "The criteria contemplate no quantitative threshold that triggers automatic inclusion in a Commission-sponsored debate." Instead, the commission would use "evidence of national organization," "signs of national newsworthiness" and "indicators of national enthusiasm or concern" to "determine whether a candidate has a sufficient chance of election." Those criteria effectively kept Perot in the wings in 1996.

The criteria for the 2000 debates -- the third of which is scheduled for Oct. 17 at Washington University -- have become even more prohibitively exclusive.

Under rules enacted in January by the CPD, eligibility is now restricted to candidates who achieve a 15 percent approval rating before the debates. The popularity index is based on an average compiled from five national polls: ABC/Washington Post, CBS News/New York Times, NBC/Wall Street Journal, CNN/USA Today/Gallup and Fox News/Opinion Dynamics. The debate criteria shut out candidate Pat Buchanan, the titular standard-bearer of the splintered Reform Party, spawned by Perot's 1992 bid. They also keep at bay Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, who has garnered the support of 3 to 10 percent of the electorate in recent months, judging from different polls.

Pollster Ken Warren, a political-science professor at St. Louis University, says that excluding presidential candidates from the debates on the basis of polling data is itself undemocratic. "To say that they should have 15 percent popularity in the polls before they're included in the debates is patently outrageous, because virtually no third-party candidate, at the beginning of a campaign, could ever hope to have 15 percent," Warren says. The longtime pollster has done survey work for Democratic candidates and for municipalities and tax districts, and he has conducted exit polling for the media. But he draws the line at exclusionary politics. "It's really a travesty that polls are used to influence the democratic process," he says.

There appears to be considerable support for this position among members of the electorate. A Fox News survey conducted in July found that more than two- thirds of the voters polled wanted Buchanan and Nader included in the debates, regardless of their ratings.

Nader has broadened his attacks beyond the issue of polling, charging that corporate sponsorship of the debates -- including the $550,000 donated by the Anheuser-Busch Cos. for the Washington University match -- violates federal campaign-finance law. In essence, he says, the corporations are making illegal campaign contributions to the Democrats and the GOP. Although the Republicans have some concerns about whether Buchanan will hurt Gov. George W. Bush's chances, Nader's candidacy poses a far greater threat to Vice President Al Gore and could cause the Democrats to lose control of the White House.

In June, Nader and the Greens filed a federal lawsuit in Boston -- where the first debate is scheduled for Oct. 3 -- challenging the Federal Election Commission regulation that permits private financing of the debates. Last week, Nader's attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Patti Saris to issue an injunction to halt the debates, pending a legal decision in the case. The judge is expected to rule in the next few weeks.

Specifically, Nader and the Greens are challenging the FEC regulation that allows the CPD -- a nonprofit corporation -- to receive millions of dollars in contributions from corporate sponsors. Their legal argument is based on a federal law, the Tillman Act, dating back to 1907. Congress enacted the law to prohibit corporations from using their wealth to influence the outcome of federal elections, and federal law is supposed to supersede agency regulations.

The CPD, which was formed in 1987, is headed by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk and former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. In addition to Anheuser-Busch, the CPD's sponsors include IBM, J.P. Morgan & Co. and the Philip Morris Cos.

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