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How the Commission on Presidential Debates Monopolizes Information

Why are we always choosing between the lesser of two evils?

Part of the Series

The end of the 2016 presidential election is finally within sight. Regardless of how anyone intends to vote, there is one thing most of us agree on: We are glad it is almost over.

As the race to the White House enters the final hours of its contest, it feels to many as though there is little terrain where our two lead candidates are not willing to tread. As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have sparred and squabbled, it has become easy to believe that seeing this democratic debacle come to an end will be a victory for everyone. Unfortunately, it is just the beginning, because one of these candidates is going to win.

Tragically, many voters wonder how they can vote for either candidate in the current chaos, and they will do so only with the limited conviction that their candidate is simply not as dreadful as the other. Given all the media attention in the last months, one might believe there were only two candidates and would be surprised to learn that a whopping 1,780 candidates filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Ballots like Colorado have 21 different presidential tickets. However, of these nearly 2,000 candidates, only four are on enough ballots to win the Electoral College majority  —  the magic number of 270 votes needed to win the election. One is Libertarian presidential nominee Gary “What is Aleppo?” Johnson, with VP nominee Bill Weld, and the other is Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, with her VP nominee Ajamu Baraka. However, the Libertarian ticket is currently only polling at 4 to 6 percent and the Green ticket, a meager 2 to 3 percent. Supposing the tacit dis-likability of Clinton and Trump, how can those numbers be so low?

Obviously, 1,780 presidential candidates could not have debated on one stage, but certainly four possible winners could have. This raises the question — why didn’t we get to see that debate?

The short answer is that the Commission on Presidential Debates said “no,” and even though the “Commission on Presidential Debates” sounds like an official bureaucratic federal entity, it is not. It is a private organization, owned and maintained by the Democratic and Republican parties. So, if the Democrats and Republicans get to decide who should be allowed to debate, it should come as no surprise only Democrats and Republicans actually do. However, it wasn’t always this way.

Once upon a time, the debates were hosted by the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group dedicated to transparency in government and the right to vote for every person in the United States. Despite their commitment to the process, a rival debate commission sprang up and, in 1988, Republican National Committee Chair Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. and Democratic National Committee Chair Paul Kirk began to co-chair the Commission on Presidential Debates, requesting that the League of Women Voters step aside. The Democratic and Republican parties were effectively confiscating the debate process from the hands of ordinary people, providing both the red and blue teams with a media monopoly to limit the education of voters, effectively manipulating the national discourse. Consequently, the League withdrew from the process that same year. From the group’s press release:

The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” League President Nancy M. Neuman said today. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public. Most objectionable to the League, Neuman said, were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings. Neuman called “outrageous” the campaigns’ demands that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.

The two campaigns sought to choreograph the entire debate process. Democrats and Republicans could filter through what questions are asked, who asks them and where the debate is held. The League of Women Voters saw through this bogus agreement, which aimed to keep power among the two parties. When the League quit, the Commission on Presidential Debates took their place. The rest is history.

Former co-chair Paul Kirk resigned in 2009. Fahrenkopf remains. In the early years, he remained the RNC chair until 1989, despite serving as the chair of the debate commission since 1986. For three years, he held the interests of both the RNC and Commission on Presidential Debates.

In 1985, Fahrenkopf began working for Hogan & Hartson LLP, eventually working his way up to become chairman. In 2010, Hogan merged with London-based Lovells, becoming Hogan & Lovells LLP, where he is currently on counsel. Even though the newly created Lovells was one of the largest lobbying firms to the US government, spending a handsome $12.3 million in 2013, no one in Washington seemed to recognize the conflict of interest he had in controlling the debates while simultaneously lobbying on behalf of special interests. Hogan & Lovells’ modus operandi is working with clients to help shape laws in their favor. In 2013, they created the “Coalition for Privacy and Free Trade.” In an internal document, the firm stated the intent of the newly formed coalition was to set itself up to benefit from the US and EU’s intentions to mediate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and following Japan’s statement of intent to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Lovells has long supported the two controversial trade deals. Opportunists at heart, the firm distributed a pamphlet in 2016 to clients in the UK titled, “Brexit: shaping your future.” In it, Lovells’ staff write, “We can help you to develop a strategy for shaping the law, regulations and arrangements …” First class service, really.

When shaping the law for your clients is your business, privacy and working behind closed doors is paramount to success. This has clearly been decisive to people like Frank Fahrenkopf.In the past, donors and sponsors to the Commission on Presidential Debates have included firms like tobacco giant Philip Morris and beer titan Anheuser-Busch. Today, the commission keeps its donors and sponsors secret, because when they were public, the commission was criticized for having corporate-funded debates. In 2012, three sponsors quit due to public pressure.

A man of many talents, Fahrenkopf is also on the board of directors for eight New York Stock Exchange companies, seven of which are operated under one of Wall Street’s highest-paid chief executives, Mario Gabelli. Gabelli and his larger umbrella company GAMCO invest in companies such as ExxonMobil, AIG, Disney, Pfizer, Monsanto, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and defense contractors like Halliburton and Honeywell. Of particular interest is Gabelli’s acute awareness of media trends and mergers in broadcasting companies, such as E.W. Scripps, which owns 33 television stations in 24 markets.

Fahrenkopf’s ties to GAMCO’s investments directly expose Wall Street’s corrupting influence on media and politics. In 2000, the Commission on Presidential Debates instituted a rule requiring that, in addition to a candidate’s ticket having a mathematical chance of winning the required 270 electoral votes, they must also poll at 15 percent or higher in five specific polls: ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, CNN/Opinion Research Corp., Fox News and NBC/Wall Street Journal. ABC News is owned by Disney. 21st Century Fox owns Fox News. NBC is owned by Comcast. All belong to the GAMCO portfolio. Recently, Gabelli has been pushing for the merger of CBS and Viacom, both of which he holds the most financial interest in, second only to 93-year-old Sumner Redstone.

Frank Fahrenkopf is one of most important gatekeepers in a handful of political establishment insiders responsible for informing voters who the candidates for the president of the United States are. His close relationships with power elites and special interest lobbyists such as himself are eager to write every line of international law in their own favor. While many citizens will be left scratching their heads and wondering why there cannot be a better choice than Clinton or Trump, insiders like Frank Fahrenkopf work tirelessly to make sure that there is not.

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