A friend of mine recently told me, "Dismissing the debates as a 'circus' is kind of silly." Well, the debates weren't always a circus. How did they get that way?
Let's go back to when the presidential debates were organized by an independent, nonpartisan group, the League of Women Voters (LWV). That started in 1976.
In 1980, this guy named John Anderson challenges Reagan for the Republican nomination in the primaries. He looks threatening at first, but eventually it looks like Reagan's got it in the bag, so Anderson decides to run independently.
Meanwhile, President Carter is struggling. He's got a fluctuating approval rating and a citizenship about ready to lay into him for a poor economy. And what with Ted Kennedy taking his pursuit of the Democratic nomination all the way to the convention, Carter's tired of fighting. He's not looking forward to debating a populist like Reagan who says he'll lower taxes, and he damn sure doesn't want to have to debate a real conservative like Anderson who has the support of a lot of the intellectual Democrat base.
But Reagan is betting that Anderson will do more damage to Carter than to Reagan, and says he won't participate in a debate without Anderson. The LWV invites all three candidates to the first debate anyway; predictably, Carter declines and the debate becomes a Reagan-Anderson contest.
The debate gets unimpressive ratings, partly because of Anderson's disappointing performance, and partly because of a feeling of pointlessness about the debate since the president wasn't involved. This puts pressure on the LWV to include Carter, and maybe to drop Anderson, whose poll numbers start slipping from his 25% high.
Reagan's treading water at this point; everyone agrees he handled Anderson well, but there are concerns about how well he measures up intellectually. In addition, there's that common apprehension about changing leadership in the middle of a crisis. Seeing himself behind in the polls, Reagan figures his only option is to try and kill two birds with one stone: by debating Carter, he can prove himself an intellectual match for Carter, and he can turn conventional wisdom on its ear by suggesting that a time of crisis is exactly the time for a leadership change. So the Reagan camp expresses to the LWV that they're OK with not inviting Anderson back for round two, if that's the only way Carter will participate.
So it's Anderson out and Carter in, but Carter still gets blindsided by Reagan's "are you better off now" bit and goes on to lose the election (which happens just a week later). Not the first or the last time that major political events in this country have turned on details, but Carter at this point has to be thinking what might have happened if he'd have taken on Reagan earlier, instead of waiting until the week before the election. And the Reagan guys--sure, they're feeling lucky, but they don't want to leave it up to chance next time.
Well, "next time," of course, is 1984, and there's no third-party candidate to worry about, but the Democrats and Republicans are already teaming up behind the scenes against that common enemy they know is coming. In 1985, Paul Kirk, the chair of the Democratic Party, and Frank Fahrenkopf, the chair of the Republican Party, get together to discuss the benefits of having the two parties in charge of future "debates." That's in quotes because, tellingly, Kirk and Fahrenkopf (KF) call them "joint appearances," not debates. A couple years later, KF officially form the Commission on Presidential Debates (because that sounds more substantive than "joint appearances," of course) and become its first two co-chairs. (They're also the last two co-chairs--they're still in charge of the CPD.) KF are surprisingly open about what they think future third-party candidates can go do to themselves. "Look, we're chairmen of the two parties--of course we're going to favor the two parties!" is basically the CPD line.
So in 1988 the shoe drops. The CPD basically takes it upon itself to arrange the debates--who's asking the questions, who's in the audience, which members of the press can cover it, etc.--and says to the LWV, take it or leave it. The LWV objects, of course, fearing that the debates are about to become charades. The CPD maintains that it's now the only group with the authority to guarantee the participation of Democratic and Republican candidates. The LWV counters that only it can ensure the participation of third-party candidates, but no one really cares about that at the time, and the League's credibility is a little tarnished anyway after they were perceived as backing down to Carter's demand to exclude Anderson from the debates back in 1980. So the LWV issues a press release saying, basically, this is bullshit and the LWV isn't going to be a part of it. So the LWV gets out of the debate business, but they're not really missed.
OK, this is getting a little long, so I'll hold off on part 2 until a little later. You won't want to miss it: the two parties' common enemy shows up, and he looks like a friend! Stay tuned.
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