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.

Janet H. Brown, CPD executive director, says that the commission's policies are above reproach. "It is perfectly acceptable to take contributions from individuals, civic groups, foundations or corporations to meet the cost of the debate," Brown says. "It seems to me that the argument that Mr. Nader is making is over not just the funding mechanism but whether funders are being given influence over how the debates are put on. The answer is, our donors have absolutely no input into any decision we make about any aspect of the debates. We're in complete compliance with the FEC and IRS regulations."

In a prepared two-paragraph statement, Stephen K. Lambright, vice president and general counsel of Anheuser-Busch, says that the debates allow "a unique opportunity for voters to gain even more insight into candidates' views," adding that the company is "delighted to demonstrate our civic responsibility through serving as the national sponsor of the 2000 debates." Lambright's statement says nothing about the beer company's views on limiting the debates to just two candidates, however.

Scott Lewis, one of Nader's attorneys in Boston, sees corporate sponsorship as something more than "civic responsibility."

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."

"The Commission on Presidential Debates is itself a corporation," Lewis says. "It's not a commission. It's just called a commission. It uses its own money and other money that is donated to it by other corporations, including Anheuser-Busch, to put on a debate that has the consequence of serving as a paid advertisement for the candidates who are permitted to participate in it. Well, if that's not influencing the election, I don't know what it's doing."

Off the electoral and judicial battlegrounds, the exclusionary policy of the CPD has had another unforeseen consequence: It has further galvanized the grassroots political movement that erupted in the streets of Seattle earlier this year, during the World Trade Organization's talks. Indeed, similar protests are being planned to correspond with the Oct. 17 debate at Washington University.

A local alliance, named the o17 Coalition after the Oct. 17 date (www.o17.org), is organizing demonstrations, scheduled for the week of the debate, that will focus attention on issues left unaddressed by Gore and Bush. In addition to the Gateway Greens, the coalition mostly comprises human-rights organizations, labor activists and student groups. Local organizers anticipate that their ranks will swell with protesters from around the country, who are already expressing interest in attending. With thousands taking to the streets at both the Republican and Democratic conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, respectively, earlier this summer, the U.S. Secret Service and local law-enforcement authorities can be expected to temporarily turn the Washington University campus into an armed compound by Oct. 17.

With Nader excluded, one protest goal will be to move the debate into the streets, says Shawn Kumar, a Washington University student and member of the o17 Coalition. "You look at this debate and you realize that it is a very closed and scripted event with two candidates," says Kumar. "The issues that they do address represent a very narrow spectrum. They both agree with the World Trade Organization. They both agree on NAFTA. They're both in favor of the death penalty. There are large movements in this country based on these alternative ideas, but they never get any airing. It's a systematic problem: It's in the media, it's in the political process."

For his part, Washington University political-science professor James Davis sees nothing wrong with the exclusive two-party format. "Frankly, I'm comfortable with the debate format that focuses attention on serious candidates, people who have a shot at the White House," says Davis. Establishing a cutoff level to winnow away undeserving candidates is appropriate, he says. There's nothing inherently wrong with corporate sponsorship funneled through the CPD, either, Davis says: "I don't see anything illegitimate about corporate support. It's not like they were supporting one candidate over the other."

What the current debate system does sanction, however, is support for only two candidates -- the Republican and the Democrat.

"The people who make up that commission are Republicans and Democrats," says Warren. "So they also have an enormous conflict of interest. And they know damn well what they're doing, too."

Related Links:
Coalition to Open the Debate - St. Louis, MO
Media Beat: Paying Homage to the Two-Party Media System
Ralph Nader for President
Commission on Presidential Debates

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