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Commissioning the Debates
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, Sept. 22, 2000

Question: Who makes up the "Presidential Debate Commission"? Who appointed them, and where did they come from? Why do they seem to be the final word on presidential debates? -- Jon Emerson, Fort Myers, Fla.

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The League of Women Voters ran the presidential debates from the Carter-Ford debates in '76 until '88. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
Answer: In 1976, the League of Women Voters proposed and ultimately became the sponsor of presidential debates, with the aim of taking what happened between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 and making it a continuing campaign occurrence. The League was responsible for the Carter-Ford and Mondale-Dole debates in '76, the Reagan-Anderson and Reagan-Carter debates of '80, and the Reagan-Mondale and Bush-Ferraro debates of '84.

The two major parties were never especially pleased with this arrangement and worked to take control of the process. By 1988, the presidential candidates made so many demands about format and types of questions and height of the podium that the League simply got fed up and ceded control to the newly formed debate commission. Established in 1987 by the two parties and headed up ever since by Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf – the former chairmen of the Democratic and Republican National Committees respectively – the Commission took over the debates in 1988 and control them to this day.

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No commission was needed for these two guys in 1858. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
The Commission's board of directors are Clifford Alexander, the secretary of the Army under President Carter; former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.); Howard Buffett, president of an Illinois agricultural manufacturing company and son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett; Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.); Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, daughter of the slain president; Paul O'Neill, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ford; Newton Minow, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; and Dorothy Ridings, former president of the League of Women Voters. Its executive director is Janet Brown.

The debate schedule is as follows:

• Oct. 3, at the University of Massachusetts in Boston (presidential) – traditional debate format, with candidates answering questions from behind a lectern.
• Oct. 5, at Centre College in Danville, Ky. (vice presidential) – talk-show format, with candidates sitting around a table with the moderator.
• Oct. 11, at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. (presidential) – talk-show format, with candidates sitting around a table with the moderator.
• Oct. 17, at Washington University in St. Louis (presidential) – town-hall format, with candidates taking questions from the audience.

All three presidential debates will be moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer. The vice presidential debate will be moderated by CNN's Bernard Shaw. All will begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time and will run for 90 minutes.

Question: Why am I even surprised about the choice of Democrat Jim Lehrer, a former White House employee under a Democratic administration, to moderate the debates? It figures that a liberal Democrat would be chosen as the moderator. But please tell us, who was in charge of that choice? -- Karen K. Roberts, Shamokin Dam, Pa.

Answer: The aforementioned Commission proposed Lehrer as the moderator for all three presidential debates, and officials of the Gore and Bush campaigns agreed. The sole moderator for both Clinton-Dole debates in '96, Lehrer also moderated the Gore-Kemp vice presidential debate that year, two of the three Clinton-Bush-Perot encounters in '92, and the first Bush-Dukakis debate in '88. Lehrer has a reputation for impeccable fairness, and has long argued against the trend of journalists to inject personal opinions in their reporting.

However, your statement about Lehrer's past is incorrect. He was not a White House employee under a Democratic administration. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in Dallas, first for the Morning News and then the Times-Herald. He joined public television in the 1970s, eventually joining up with Robert MacNeil (who retired in 1995), and won scores of awards for journalistic excellence.

Question: I heard that two states, Nebraska and Maine, award electoral college votes proportionally. This was completely news to me. Did something happen in those states in the past few years or is this just an urban legend? -- Dan Carnese, San Mateo County, Calif.

Answer: What you've heard is true. Unlike the other 48 states, whose electoral votes all go to whichever presidential candidate carries their state, it's different in Nebraska (five electoral votes) and Maine (four electoral votes). These states award two electoral votes to the statewide winner and the remaining electoral votes go to the winner of each congressional district. For example, if Bush defeats Gore in Nebraska but carries only two of the state's three congressional districts, Bush would get four electoral votes and Gore would get one.

Maine passed the law enabling the split-elector system in 1969. Nebraska joined the club in 1991, when then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D) pushed through a bill that would theoretically help Democrats in a state that is almost a lock for the GOP in presidential contests. The legislature voted to repeal the law in '95 but Nelson vetoed it. In the elections since these states have adopted this system, neither has experienced a split in awarding electoral votes.

Question: When you talked about the Libertarian Party in your June 30th column, you talked about a 1972 elector for Richard Nixon who decided to vote for the Libertarian candidate instead. Is this the same Roger McBride who is running for Congress in Virginia? -- Wesley McGee, Falls Church, Va.

Answer: No. The Roger MacBride who was the "faithless elector" in 1972 (as well as the Libertarians' 1976 presidential nominee) died in 1995. He did live in Virginia when he ran for president. The congressional candidate to whom you refer is Robert McBride – no relation, though he too is a Libertarian. He is running against Rep. Tom Davis (R) in Virginia's 11th District.

Question: Your two most recent columns (Sept. 8 and Sept. 15) discussed whether any two-term president ever sought renomination after leaving office. Neither column expressly limited the question to presidents who were elected to two terms. Teddy Roosevelt served, in essence, two terms. He did seek renomination after leaving the office. Why doesn't he count? -- Tim Hurley, Denver, Colo.

Answer: Because technically, Roosevelt was not a two-term president. Elected vice president in 1900, he moved up following McKinley's assassination in 1901. He ran for a full term in 1904 but stepped aside four years later. As you noted, he did seek the Republican nomination again in 1912 (and indeed ran as a third-party candidate in the general election that year). But neither he, nor Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson in more recent times, were considered two-term presidents, even though all served more than four years in office.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.


© Copyright 2000 Ken Rudin


 
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