The action taken by the national League of Women Voters in withdrawing its sponsorship of the second presidential debate was absolutely correct. The league is not a funding organization for debates. The league sponsors debates for the purpose of allowing voters an opportunity to see and hear candidates exchange and challenge opposing views. Where was the challenge in the first party-sponsored debate? Misstatements of the facts and unanswered questions were left hanging because no follow-up questions between the candidates were allowed.
But let’s stop using the word “debate” to describe what the American people are seeing. Under the guidelines established by the handlers of the candidates, what is being presented is a joint press conference and as such, it has some value. But if it’s debates the people want then they should demand it. And that is what the league tried to do. But this wasn’t even open to discussion or negotiation. The league was handed a completed document, designed to present the best image of the candidates with the least amount of risk, and told that this was the way in which the league had to present the debate to the American people. The league didn’t buy that.
Since 1976 when the league institutionalized presidential debates, “sponsorship” by the league has come to represent integrity and representation of the voter’s interests. How could the league sign an agreement which runs counter to all the principles the league represents? Of course, the bipartisan commission doesn’t mind picking up the tab under these conditions. The commission is the Democratic and Republican parties. They have a responsibility to the candidates. The league has a responsibility to the voters.
And this is the crux of the matter. The issue is not merely the format or control of the debates. The issue is the integrity of the debates. The arrogant manner in which the candidates’ managers presented 16 pages of demands and requirements was an affront not only to the league but to the American people. These requirements included their intention to stack the audience with candidate cheering sections and placed limitations on what the broadcast media could and couldn’t do. In effect the candidates said, “We don’t care what you think about guidelines and rules. This is the way we want it and this is the way it’s going to be. Take it or leave it.”
Nancy Neuman, national league president, said in her press conference, “Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates’ organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands.” I would add that never in the history of this country have the people been so manipulated by image makers. If citizens don’t stand up soon and say, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore,” something of great value in the free democratic process will have been compromised.
President, League of Women Voters