Debate Commission Loses One-Third Of Board Members

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The Commission on Presidential Debates, or CPD, has been under fire for its policies for several years now. For the past 24 years, the CPD has excluded anyone but the Republican and Democratic nominees from participating in the three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate in September and October before the election.

An important lawsuit, Level the Playing Field, et al. v. Federal Election Commission, goes before a federal judge on Jan. 5. That suit seeks to accomplish what the CPD has refused to do on its own: change the rules to stop systematically preventing independent candidates from debating – and becoming president.

Meanwhile, it seems no coincidence that the CPD itself is disintegrating. Here’s what has happened:

  • On April 16, 2014, the CPD elected six new directors. Three of them have recently resigned: Leon Panetta, the former congressman and director of the CIA; Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana; and Shirley Tilghman, a biologist who is the president emerita of Princeton University.
  • After the 2014 board elections but before these three resignations – two other directors were named to the board: Jim Lehrer, the former PBS nightly news anchor, and Bob Schieffer, former CBS “Face the Nation” anchor. Schieffer dropped off within months.
  • A fifth director, Sen. Alan Simpson, also left the board over the past year.
  • A sixth director, Mike McCurry, a Democratic lobbyist who once served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton, stepped down as co-chair in the past few weeks. McCurry had been one of the board’s staunchest supporters, along with Frank Fahrenkopf, the ex-chairman of the Republican National Committee. McCurry was replaced as co-chair by Dorothy Ridings, a former newspaper publisher who left her post as president of the League of Women Voters 30 years ago.
  • The final departee was former President Bill Clinton, who, with former President Jimmy Carter, was one of the CPD’s two living honorary co-chairmen.

So, to sum up: The CPD has lost one-third of its board members in the past year.

Why Are CPD Board Members Deserting?

The question is why, and the CPD itself is not forthcoming. In fact, the commission has not issued a press release about its board membership in two and a half years. It required analysis akin to Kremlinology to glean the information we presented above.

While the CPD’s policies have an enormous impact on our electoral system, the commission itself is shockingly opaque.

For example, the CPD announced with great fanfare that it was considering changes in 2016 to its criteria for admission to the debate stage. Then, on Oct. 29, 2015, after refusing to meet with members of Change the Rule, the 50 signers of a letter demanding reform, in 2015, the commission announced that a working group of the board, headed by Ridings, had concluded that, in fact, no changes were necessary – meaning, of course, that only the Republican and Democratic nominees would be debating.

But at that time the CPD did indicate that there was dissent in its ranks: “The criteria for 2016 were adopted by a majority vote of the CPD board.” In other words, the decision was not unanimous. Inquiries to board members about the nature and extent of the dissent were futile. We were told that the proceedings – of a non-profit whose decisions can determine the outcome of a presidential election – were private and confidential and that CPD directors had been “sworn to secrecy.”

Here Are Our Conclusions

We can, however, draw our own conclusions.

It is hard to interpret the departure of men and women of principle, like Panetta, Daniels, Tilghman, and Schieffer as being anything but a result of the criticism that has been directed at the board.

Because the CPD won’t do its duty, the federal courts will have to insure that its duty is done.

We doubt that these directors could not stand the heat. More likely, they could not tolerate the decision the board made to keep its rules the same as they have been for decades. In other words, they may have agreed with the criticism being leveled at the CPD.

This is our educated guess. Even Fahrenkopf and McCurry had to admit in 2015: “We are mindful of the changes in the electorate and the large number of voters who now self-identify as independents.”

But changes in the electorate won’t ever produce changes in the debate-admission rules – not if the organization that makes the rules continues to be dominated by stalwarts of the two parties who conduct their business in secret.

The Lawsuit Being Heard in Two and a Half Weeks

Because the CPD won’t do its duty, the federal courts will have to insure that its duty is done. That will be an embarrassment to those left on the commission, including people who should know better like former Rep. Jane Harman and former Sen. Olympia Snowe. All the directors should read the 80-page Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Alexandra Shapiro, a top New York litigator, in April and being heard in Washington in two and a half weeks.

That motion argues that:

(1) the CPD is not a nonpartisan organization, and it endorses, supports, or opposes political parties, (2) the CPD’s 15% polling criterion is not objective, and therefore (3) the CPD violated FECA [Federal Election Campaign Act] by making illegal corporate contributions and expenditures, accepting illegal contributions, and failing to register as a political committee and disclose its contributors and expenditures.

The motion also notes that the vast majority of Americans want to have the choice of an independent as president and want to see a third debater on the stage.

A crumbling CPD can do the right thing now all by itself, even without the court’s decision. What more evidence do we need that the electoral system is broken?  The weekend before the election, the two candidates had a combined 111 percentage points of disapproval. And the election itself saw the lowest percentage turnout since 1996. It’s time to fix a broken system before the next election, which will be sooner than you think.

  • rwscid

    Intriguing, but I wish I could be slightly more optimistic.

    Simpson is an old man. He’s fought his battles. He lost the last one (bi-partisan budget recommendation 2010). And there’s no reason for Clinton to be associated with the CPD, as there is no money in it and he no longer has to worry about his wife’s presidential chances (but never say never).

    McCurry is certainly the most curious. He is only 62 and was the Democratic lynchpin in the CPD. He didn’t leave the board (yet). He might have been beaten in an internal vote by Dorothy and her gang? Very, very hard to believe he is turning his hatchetman job over to her for on-the-job training – she’s older than he is.

    That leaves Panetta, Daniels, and Tilghman. We have reason to believe Daniels was a dissenter, I don’t know much about the other two. A two year term isn’t very long, one would expect at least four, given the nature of the job.

    Another interesting question is – what will their 2015 tax form 990 look like? The CPD typically files for two three-month extensions, making it due on November 15, 2016 (conveniently after the presidential debates). Since we now know they have either been filing false returns (unlikely) or they have been lying about the source of their income (likely), and this year was the first year that information was widely disseminated, it could be the tale of lies is finally catching up to them and honest board members want to get out while the gettin’s good.

    But that explanation seems unlikely. Surely there would be a couple of longer term board members who would also find it convenient to jump ship now? Or maybe there’s a timing question – what did they know, and when did they know it? Maybe the newer board members were never fully clued in as to how the finances worked, and three of them found it objectionable when they finally found out? But why not the other three? Maybe they drew straws to see who got to leave early …

    I’m not yet a believer, however. Having watched Mike McCurry’s work for the CPD for the last two election cycles, I’d always bet on him having a plan B, C, and D. Plus the ones he hasn’t told anyone about. He’s a world class sophist.

    Then there’s Janet Brown. Must have been a mighty nerve wracking 2016 for her. She’s 65 – maybe ready to pack it in?

    It will be an interesting 2017 …

  • il corvo

    Simply, give the debates back to the League of Women Voters and out of the hands of the oligarchy. Politicians should not be making these debate decisions, they are all biased.

  • TRipp

    Another newsworthy item never to be seen on mainstream entertainment bs passing as our news

  • kevinzeese

    I wish the League were trustworthy. But, across the country they have bee requiring 10% or even 15% in polling and thereby keeping debates limited to the duopoly dictatorship. We need a simple rule for presidential debates: if you are on enough ballots to win 270 electoral college debates you should be included in the debates. That is objective and consistent with the election rules. Anything else is just creating unnecessary obstacles to keep people out.

  • il corvo

    If that would require no other rules like letting the candidates know the questions, that makes sense. I , also, didn’t know that about the League, thanks.

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