There aren't many outfits as arrogant, self-important, and aggrandizing as the unelected Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), sponsor of tonight's debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. When John McCain said Wednesday the debate might have to be delayed so he could work on the financial bailout, the commission responded, in effect, "Sorry, John, the debate must go on, whether or not financial markets collapse. The debate is more important."
That was just the latest example of high-handedness by the commission, which has hijacked the debates from the candidates, the campaigns, and the news media. The commission picked the sites for the debates (three presidential, one vice presidential) and charged the colleges involved $1.5 million for the honor. Then CPD announced the moderators for each debate without consulting with Obama or McCain campaigns or even informing them ahead of time.
The moderators are all nice people: Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Tom Brokaw, Bob Schieffer. But all four of them are liberals, more or less, of the mainstream media variety. Plus, the commission picked no one from cable news, where millions of people who follow campaigns and elections most closely go for their political news.
The McCain and Obama campaigns had little trouble working out their own differences on debate format. Their negotiations were amicable. When the commission stepped in, the talks became less friendly.
Getting the commission to go along with the format agreed upon by the candidates was a problem. In fact, the McCain campaign was so upset by the commission's overbearing attitude that it briefly considered dumping the commission and finding another vehicle for the debates. But the Obama campaign wasn't interested and the McCain folks dropped the idea.
The commission had its own plans for the format. The CPB honchos--Republican Frank Fahrenkopf, Democrat Paul Kirk, and who-knows-what Janet Brown--wanted Obama and McCain to be seated for tonight's debate. The campaigns wanted them to stand, and prevailed on this point. Representatives of Obama and McCain also forced the commission to allow the first debate to be on foreign policy, not domestic issues. And they insisted, against the commission's wishes, to have more questions asked at the town hall presidential debate.
But those changes came about only after a struggle. The commission was set on imposing its own preferences. After all, the commission regards the presidential debates as its property now and forever.
The CPB took over the debates in 1987 after the League of Women Voters was sacked as the sponsor. The league had often irritated the campaigns, especially the campaign of President Carter in 1980. Carter aides privately mocked the league as "the plague of women voters" and "the league of women vultures."
The commission ran the show in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004. One of the biggest complaints this year was the selection of sites in Mississippi, Tennessee, and New York--not battleground states. The vice presidential debate is scheduled for next Thursday in St. Louis, Missouri.