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The presidential debates and the two-party duopoly” The Commission on Presidential Debates

The following was published by Harrison Wills at (  Harrison is the former student body president from Santa Monica College who helped lead the charge against the two-tiered educational program President Tsang attempted to implement at the college on April 3, 2012.

Harrison is back at SMC where he continues to study.  He spent the summer interning for Opensecrets.


Tomorrow, when the curtain rises on the first of three head-to-head debates between President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney, it is Romney who will have the most to gain or lose in what could be some fiery exchanges, most experts agree.

But the organization sponsoring the verbal wrangles has been taking its own share of incoming. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which has been organizing the events since 1988, has lost three of the debates’ 10 original corporate sponsors in recent days: Philips Electronics, British advertising firm BBH New York, and the YWCA.
The reason? While the CPD maintains it is nonpartisan, its work “may appear to support bi-partisan politics,” a Phillips company spokesman said in a statement to Politico. “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.”
The withdrawal by Philips and the others comes amid pressure from supporters of candidates outside the Republican and Democratic parties to force the CPD to include those candidates in the debates. Last month, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson sued the  commission and the two major parties, alleging antitrust violations and calling for debate access  for qualified candidates who are on enough ballots to win the election, which would include himself and the Green Party’s Jill Stein.
Indeed, the CPD’s history indicates that third-party candidates were looked on with disfavor from the beginning. During the three presidential campaigns prior to 1988, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters hosted the debates. But in 1987, the Democratic and Republican parties got together and created the commission, a bipartisan organization that the party chairmen said would strengthen the role of political parties in the election process. The League responded that the new system ceded all control over aspects of the debates to the major party candidates and would “perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”
In 1992, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot was allowed to participate in the presidential debates, but the campaigns of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole prevented him from being on the stage in 1996.
Two-party system, two-party donors
The board of directors of CPD, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, certainly seems far more bipartisan than nonpartisan. It’s co-chaired  by Frank Fahrenkopf, who headed the RNC from 1983-1989. Fahrenkopf is  now president and CEO of the American Gaming Association — the trade group for the casino industry — and has given $23,750 to  GOP candidates and $1,750 to Democrats since 2008. A registered lobbyist for the AGA, Fahrenkopf has been quoted saying “We’re not going to  apologize for trying to influence political elections.” The AGA had  spent a bit under $1.4 million on lobbying by midway through 2012, which could put the group on pace to spend more than the $2.2 million it laid out in 2011.
The other co-chairman is  Democrat Mike McCurry, White House press secretary under President Bill  Clinton and now a partner with the lobbying firm Public Strategies Washington. McCurry was a lobbyist for Hands Off the Internet, a group that opposed net neutrality and had backing from such major corporations as AT&T and the National Association of Manufacturers. research shows that McCurry has given nearly $85,000 to Democrats since 2008.
Richard Parsons, another member of the board, is former chairman of Citigroup as well as of Time Warner, and was an economic adviser to  Obama’s transition team. But Parsons also gave $25,000 to John McCain’s  Victory Committee in 2008, and $22,700 to the RNC the same year. Overall Parsons and his wife, Laura, have given $119,000 to candidates and  party committees since 2008, mostly to Republicans.
Others on the CPD board include two former GOP senators — John Danforth of Missouri and Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Danforth and his wife have  given a combined $85,000 to Republicans since 2008, while Simpson, who  co-chaired Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and  Reform, has  donated $4,250.
The donations from all of the CPD’s board members are shown in the chart below:
2012-10-02-COPDDonations-web.JPGA Word from Our Corporate Sponsors
The CPD has a handful of sponsors: a collection (smaller now than it was) of heavy-hitting companies, two  foundations (Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Kovler Fund), a trade  group (the International Bottled Water Association) and an individual  (former IRS Commissioner Sheldon S. Cohen). But some of those backers provide only in-kind contributions, rather than cash, and the commission has been reluctant to reveal the sources of the millions of dollars it uses to fund debates in presidential election years.
According to the CPD’s 990 forms filed with the IRS, the commission brought in $6.8 million in 2007 and 2008, and spent $2.3 million in 2008. But the form does not require the organization to reveal its donors.
As for the current corporate backers, one is Anheuser-Busch. The maker of Budweiser has given more than  $13.5 million since 1989, according to data, with 48 percent going to Republicans and the  rest to Democrats. Another of this year’s sponsors, law firm Crowell & Moring, has given $1.1 million, with 71 percent going to Democratic causes, and the third corporation is Southwest  Airlines, which has donated more than $2.3 million in that time period,  62 percent of it to the GOP, found.
An estimated 52.4  million Americans tuned in to the first round of the 2008 presidential  debates, so it’s fair to estimate that tens of millions will watch the  first general election debate of 2012 on Wednesday. The only fireworks  viewers are likely to see will be those on the stage. But the  controversy surrounding the CPD, which boils to the surface every four  years, doesn’t seem likely to quit.


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About The Author

Dr. Danny Weil is a public interest attorney who has practiced for more than twenty years and has been published in a case of first impression in California. He is no longer active as a lawyer but has written seven books on education, has taught second grade in South Central LA, PS 122, taught K-1 migrant children in Santa Maria, California and Guadalupe, California, taught in the California Youth Authority to first and second degree murderers and taught for seventeen years at Allan Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, CA. in the philosophy department.Dr. Weil holds a BA in Political Economics and Philosophy, a multi-subject bilingual credential in education (he is fluent in Spanish) and has a PhD in Critical Thinking.He is a writer for the Truthout Intellectual Project.

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