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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Disastrous debate evokes the time when the non-partisan League of Women Voters ran the show

The League of Women Voters and the presidential debates

After last night’s presidential debate disaster, and today’s announcement by the Commission on Presidential Debates that “additional structure” will be appended to the format of the remaining debates “to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” older viewers may well be waxing nostalgic for the time when the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWVEF) staged the debates.

It’s hard to believe that that was now over 30 years ago—back in October of 1988, to be exact. The candidates then were Vice President George H.W. Bush (R) and Governor Michael Dukakis (D).

But then, as now, both campaigns wanted control over the proceedings.

“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,” stated League President Nancy M. Neuman, in a press release dated Oct. 3, 1988.

“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.” Neuman added. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

According to Neuman, the campaigns had presented the League with their debate agreement on September 28--two weeks before the scheduled debate. But the agreement had been negotiated “behind closed doors” and offered as “a done deal,” with 16 pages of non-negotiable conditions--some giving the campaigns unprecedented control.

These included the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, and hall access for members of the press—all objected to as “outrageous” by Neuman.

“The campaigns’ agreement is a closed-door masterpiece,” she said. “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.”

This brought to an end the debates’ sponsorship by the venerable civic nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1920 to help women increase their participation in public affairs following ratification of the women’s suffrage amendment. The League has since continued to encourage informed and active participation in government while working to increase understanding of major public policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy.

In 1976, after a 16-year period in which there were no public presidential debates, the League of Women Voters Education Fund sponsored three presidential debates between former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter (D) and President Gerald Ford (R). These debates were the first to be held since 1960, in which Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy (D) debated Vice President Richard Nixon in the nation’s first-ever televised presidential debates.

Also in 1976, the League sponsored one vice presidential debate between Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale (D) and Kansas Senator Bob Dole (R).

The League continued to sponsor the presidential and vice-presidential debates every four years through the 1984 elections (former Vice President Walter Mondale [D] and President Ronald Reagan [R]).

Following that election cycle, the Democratic and Republican national parties decided to place sponsorship of the debates under their domain. But the League challenged the move between 1985 and 1987, and generated widespread public debate. It contended control of the debate format by the two dominant political parties would deprive voters of one of the only chances they have to see the candidates outside of their controlled campaign environments.

In 1987 the parties announced the creation of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The Commission chose LWVEF to sponsor the final presidential debate of 1988, but enacted so many rules and restrictions that the organization finally declined the offer. The nonprofit Commission has since sponsored all the presidential debates.

But the League is still active in directly asking questions of the candidates via its online election source, which also provides information on national and state office candidates, contacts for local elections officials, and guidance in watching debates from a critical viewpoint.

Meanwhile, state and local League groups across the country continue to host debates for candidates running at all other levels of government, from U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to statewide offices, city government and everything in-between.

Neuman, in 1988, also expressed the League’s regret that the American people have had no real opportunities to judge the presidential nominees outside of campaign-controlled environments.

“On the threshold of a new millennium, this country remains the brightest hope for all who cherish free speech and open debate,” she said. “Americans deserve to see and hear the men who would be president face each other in a debate on the hard and complex issues critical to our progress into the next century.”

She then issued a final challenge to both Vice President Bush and Governor Dukakis to “rise above your handlers and agree to join us in presenting the fair and full discussion the American public expects of a League of Women Voters debate.”




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