HEADS OR TAILS: You Lose
The Commission on Presidential Debates Knows a Thing or Two About Odds
Oren Weinrib is a sometimes poet, actor, and activist. He is engaged with
projects such as the independent media movement.
Even before George W. Bush and Al Gore's final showdown in St. Louis, the Commission on Presidential Debates has placed its bets for this year's election. After all, Commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, who also serves as chairman and CEO of the American Gaming Association (AGA), knows that one thing about gambling is never left to chance. In the long-run, the house always wins.
According to figures from the AGA, the principal lobby for the casino industry, revenues from legal gambling grew from $24 billion in 1989 to $58 billion in 1999. Until 1989, casinos were legal in only two states.
There are now casinos in twenty-five states, and wagering of some form is legal in all but three. How did gambling expand so rapidly? Fahrenkopf had a ready answer for Insight on the News: "[W]e're not going to apologize for trying to influence political elections."
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that the gambling industry's contributions to national elections increased from $361,169 in 1990 to over $6 million in each of the last three election cycles. Mother Jones reported in 1997 that a staggering $100 million had been poured into state elections since 1992. The industry also hired heavyweight lobbyists like Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, to champion its cause in Washington.
Those investments paid off. After Mirage Resorts gave the National Republican Senatorial Committee $250,000, former Senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.) withdrew an amendment to repeal the tax deduction for gambling losses (see David Shiflett's article in the American Spectator for more examples). When concern over the growth of gambling spawned the National Gambling Impact Study in 1996, the industry used its influence to stack the commission with its own representatives. Three years later, Richard Cooper of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The commission's final report will bristle with recommendations -- almost all so general or watered down that they pose little threat to the industry."
Lest one assume that gambling is a partisan issue, Fahrenkopf assures, "It's not Republican or Democrat, not even liberal or conservative." He's on the money -- of the $25 million in gambling funds paid to federal politicians since 1990, 49 percent has gone to Democrats, and 51 percent to Republicans, making this issue squarely "nonpartisan" in American political parlance. Fahrenkopf's own AGA has given $46,000 to Democrats and $28,700 to Republicans in PAC and soft money this cycle, despite his former role as RNC chairman.
Fahrenkopf's equanimity makes him perfect for the role of co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). After all, he is described by the AGA as "the national advocate for the commercial casino industry." With so much money invested in both the Democrats and the Republicans, he need not play favorites. In fact, Fahrenkopf has labored diligently to insure that the CPD lives up to its claim of being a "nonprofit, nonpartisan corporation." When he founded it in 1987 with former Democratic National Committee chairman Paul Kirk, they split the Commission equally between loyal Democrats and Republicans. Some might question Kirk's impartiality on the grounds that he has given $1000 to Vice President Gore and sits on the board of Hartford Financial Services, which is Joseph Lieberman's third largest contributor. There is no need for concern, however -- the Hartford's $147,750 in PAC money is split almost evenly between the two parties. Even the CPD's corporate sponsors (the Commission "accepts no money from the government") have been exemplary in their nonpartisanship. At least $1.2 million of AT&T's exceedingly generous gift of $3.2 million to the elections has gone to the Democrats. Anheuser-Busch's preference for the Republicans can also be overlooked; although the Republicans received $450,300, the Democrats got a hearty $313,256.
This whole arrangement works magnificently except for one small hitch -- the Commission is supposed to host the presidential debates, not the Bud Bowl. With such close personal and financial relations to the Democrats and Republicans, why would the Commission open the democratic process to other political parties? Indeed, while the media have largely ignored these parties, which represent millions of Americans, the CPD has worked hard to silence them. After Ross Perot participated in the 1992 debate and garnered 19 million votes, the commission quickly acted to prevent that kind of debacle from repeating itself. The new entrance requirements were rife with subjective criteria such as "the published views of prominent political commentators." Therefore in 1996, though Perot had received nearly $30 million in public funds for his campaign, the public was denied the right to hear from him.
Yielding to criticism that their guidelines were absurd, the Commission has adopted a more concrete rule for excluding third-parties this year. Eligible candidates must receive at least 15 percent in polls by five specific organizations, who are not required to include third-party candidates in their questionnaires. Thus, Patrick Buchanan, who has received $12 million in public funds, and Ralph Nader, who is polling near 5 percent and is on the ballot in forty-three states, have been excluded from the debates. Though Buchanan has lodged a complaint with the Federal Election Commission and Nader has filed suit in federal court, the CPD has stayed its course.
In truth, the actions of the Commission are easily explained. It is a group of party faithfuls and corporate shareholders -- including board members of Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, and Alcoa, among others -- acting out of self-interest and the interests of their corporate sponsors. The CPD is typical of business-as-usual in a political system that no longer holds itself accountable to the public. With their unwavering focus on the bottom-line, corporations expect their "contributions" to return in the form of profits. The Democratic and Republican parties do not disappoint, providing real services for the hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue they take in "contributions" each year.
When the League of Women Voters lost control of the debates in 1988, it foresaw the danger of the bipartisan Commission: "The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debates ... because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. ... The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."
The CPD has become so secure in this fraud that it claims,"The CPD is not affiliated with any political party. It does not lobby [or] take positions on political issues." Considering that the members of the Commission take political positions, funnel money to the establishment parties, and actually admit to trying to influence elections, a new mission statement might be in order. By excluding Nader and Buchanan from the debates, Fahrenkopf and Company have ensured that when election day comes, Americans will choose from two sides of the same corporate coin.
Published: Oct 26 2000