Despite the importance attached to these Presidential debates, the format of the corporately-sponsored bickerfest remains remarkably tame.
The debates are hardly in the vein of town hall meetings, John McCain's bread and butter, and the format he particularly prides himself on. As we learned from Jim Lehrer's scolding, these debates exist on the opposite end of the debating spectrum where the candidates stand - formal and rigid - behind podiums and refuse to make eye contact with one another.
If we're to believe that Presidential debates aren't just another area of the country for the Democrats and Republicans to repeat their stump speeches, then this whole thing must be an exercise in democracy, or something. Except, third party candidates aren't allowed into the debates ever since the nonpartisan Women League of Voters was ousted by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
In 1988, the Commission was formed by Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. and then-Republican National Committee Chairman Frank H. Fahrenkopf Jr. The Commission is adorably called "nonpartisan." Actually, the opposite is true. Though Democrats and Republicans are represented in the group, that means the Commission is partisan toward the interests of Democrats and Republicans. Independents are all but shut out of their meetings.
The new Commission immediately began soaking up donations from mom and pop businesses like Anheuser-Busch and Phillip Morris, and the independence of the debates virtually evaporated overnight.
The sovereignty of the debates is all but gone now, and they are now an exclusive club where the Democrats and Republicans hoard the power of the media between themselves. When Ross Perot managed to scare the shit out of the establishment in 1996, the Commission claimed Perot didn't have a "realistic chance of winning," which is the same argument they are now using to keep Nader out of the debates.
Third parties can bust their asses to get 15% of the national polls and hope that they can then get on a nationally-televised debate. However, even then, most surveys don't list third party candidates as an option, and the media begins the shut-out of thirty party candidates early in the season. Without media coverage, third party candidates are doomed to anonymity. And without media coverage, there's no chance of getting their 15%.
What we are now left with is an icy, formal debate stylized as a modern Orwellian Hate Week where Obama and McCain will rail against various enemies to our state -- something about Osama hiding in a cave...somewhere...probably Afghanistan. Maybe Pakistan. Maybe France. Throughout, the two candidates rarely engage one another, and the audience isn't even permitted to clap, heckle, or should they feel the need, protest the illegal wars.
That is, if one can even get into the debate. A student at Tennessee Tech University told me the Belmont University debate is being held at the Curb Event Center, which seats 5,500, a much higher capacity than the 500, or so, which is the new cap on attendance. Of that 500, only 50 students are being let in from a waiting list. The rest is reserved for media and those connected enough to score tickets.
Students should take solace in the possibility that they won't miss much. Between silencing the public and shutting out third party candidates, the Commission on Presidential Debates has done a fine job of breeding dissent from the Presidential debates.