Wednesday night brought us the first of the Presidential debates, and you were underwhelmed. Unless you were watching as a sports fan: cheering, Bud Lite in one hand, fist-pumping with the other when your guy's opponent missed a soundbite or got outpointed by a nicely lobbed zinger, with extra points when the barely literate college kids in the audience cheered or howled in derision.
What you may not know is that several consumer brands pulled out of their sponsorship deals with the debate series. What? Consumer brands sponsor the debates? Why not? No longer even remotely a civic event, these so-called forums are now more pre-processed and -packaged than string cheese, and far less intellectually substantial than even "Monday Night Football." It's perfect for brand activation.
While this has been going on for several cycles, the beginning of the end was arguably in 1987, when the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was founded and introduced the structure in which the two major parties work hand in glove behind closed doors to mold the debates. The League of Women Voters, horrified, pulled out in 1988.
The CPD totally took over, fulfilling the goals of Democratic and Republican operatives who wanted to exert control over the way that presidential election debates were run -- meaning, among other things, getting to choose and reject moderators and no-fly zones well in advance. They also essentially closed the sponsorship door to civic groups and opened it to major brands. More on that in a minute.
So who heads up the commission? Frank Fahrenkopf, founder of the CPD and former head of the Republican National Committee; and consummate Beltway insider Michael D. McCurry, White House press secretary under Bill Clinton and partner of Washington government relations firm Public Strategies Washington, Inc.
What's Fahrenkopf's day job? He is the CEO of the American Gaming Association. He represents casinos. No chance of influence there (I’m also thinking he’s never met Sheldon Adelson, shady casino mogul and rainmaker for the Republican presidential effort.) Fahrenkopf was behind the CPD rule that, for a party to be included in the national debates, it must garner at least 15% support across five national polls, a Catch-22 or two-birds-with-one-stone situation, depending on your point of view. While it utterly shuts out dissenting voices from the other parites, it also makes it well nigh impossible that those other voices will get any serious consideration. This is the kind of bullshit you see in countries like, I don't know, Iran? Except candidates opposing the "official" parties here are only murdered at the polls.
So the two parties, under the aegis of the commission, get to snuggle up like frat brothers during rush week and figure out the safe and unsafe areas for questioning, who will and will not be moderators, and who gets into the audience, way in advance. And this is why you scratch your head during debates, wondering why the event seems like an episode of "Idol" sans Simon Cowell.
You know how they say Washington is Hollywood for ugly people? You can extend the idea: so many big-studio movies are garbage, and debates are so insubstantial and tedious for the same reason: everyone agrees to play it safe because there's big money on the craps table.
Whose? Well, I drink the aforementioned Bud Light, I do, but Anheuser-Busch should probably not be throwing huge money at what has become the centerpiece of the U.S. presidential election calendar for better or worse. Hell, InBev isn't even an American company. Belgians are deciding the U.S. election! Half kidding. They are also Brazilian. What did InBev get Wednesday night? I heard on a radio broadcast that morning that, like a sporting event, their execs got to attend the debate. And I also heard that they actually will do, like, grass roots marketing: girls in skivvies handing out trinkets, just like they do at championship boxing matches. No kidding. I need to check one that out. That could be more fun than the crap onstage.
But InBev isn't alone. Southwest Airlines was there behind the curtain, as were sponsors The Howard G. Buffet Foundation, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), The Kovler Fund, big-time Washington security-clearance lawyer Sheldon Cohen, and the big Beltway regulatory law firm Crowell & Moring LLP. You can draw whatever conclusions you will, especially about the last two. Let your imagination run wild.
If all this sounds like hyperbole, don't take it from me. Here's the statement back in 1988 from the League of Women Voters: "The demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. 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 answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."
The good news is that some would-be sponsors felt the same way. Perhaps under public pressure, maybe at the behest of groups like Occupy the CPD, several sponsors last week pulled out. Conspicuously absent were BBH New York, YWCA USA and Philips Electronics. Good for them. Officially, they dropped out in disgust because the debates don't include Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. Let's see, have the major networks covering the debates made much of that? Take a guess.
Who else should drop out for the next ones? You. Don't watch the debates. A better idea would be to listen to it on “Democracy Now,” which can be heard nationally. It added at least some punch and breadth Wednesday night. Its broadcast was engineered with pauses to allow Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson to weigh in. Why it didn't also include Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, I don't know. I skipped the whole thing and watched reruns of "Mannix." That was at least be more substantial than the B.S. haircut show being put over on us last night.
Addendum: the debate venue was not far from Aurora and Columbine, Colo. So who knows, maybe the commission allowed a softball question about gun rights. By the way, state law allows university students there to carry guns on campus, though CU Boulder is taking exception.