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Activism and the Commission on Presidential Debates

by Redante Asuncion-Reed, published

Rick Stewart is the activist behind Help the Commission on Presidential Debates. He has spent the past several months waging a campaign to petition the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to open the presidential debates to candidates other than the Republican and Democratic Party nominees. The CPD is the organization that currently controls the debates. According to

Presidential debates were run by the civic-minded League of Women Voters until 1988, when the national Republican and Democratic parties seized control of the debates by establishing the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). Posing as a nonpartisan institution, the CPD has often run the debates in the interests of the national Republican and Democratic parties, not the American people.

Stewart traveled from Iowa to Washington, DC and set up operations at a coffee shop near the CPD’s DC headquarters. He prints hard copies of survey results, e-mail messages and Facebook comments to the commission and delivers them personally to the CPD offices every weekday afternoon. I contacted Stewart recently about activism and the Commission on Presidential Debates and he was gracious enough to answer my questions.

How did you come up with the idea for this effort?

Originally, I was only trying to send a message to the CPD from Iowa. I found out there was nothing on their website providing directions on how to do so (no email address, comment box, mailing address or phone number except a well-hidden one) I became frustrated so I spent a Sunday afternoon looking for contact information on their board members.I sent a message to each one I was able to find a contact. By Wednesday, I had heard nothing so I sent another email with a more provocative subject line. I received two responses from board members and at least one other from someone who said they were forwarding it to the correct persons. Plus a reply from someone assuring me he was not on the Commission.

One board member gave me a meaningless but friendly reply which more or less was all I expected -- some acknowledgement that at least a machine was on the other end, capable of accepting input even if it just threw it in the circular file. One member claimed there was place for input on the website. Surprised, I checked again but could not find any. I wrote him back asking for the link. That was the last I heard from him. I became obvious to me the Commission was basically an incompetent organization with an incompetent board. Or, perhaps, a nefariously evil organization. It made no difference -- this was a fatal flaw and could possibly be exploited. But it required being in Washington, to print out stuff and hand deliver it. So I drove to Washington to do just that.

What type of effect do you expect out of this effort in moving the CPD to open up the Presidential debates?

Obviously if the CPD actually invites more than two candidates to the debates I will claim partial credit, although they will never acknowledge they were influenced by anything other than their own deliberations. And if the CPD does not, I will have "failed." Activism cannot cease because people are afraid of failure. One must do what one can, as effectively as possible, both knowing you may never accomplish anything at all -- or you may throw the rock that brings down Goliath.

Some skeptics might say the effort isn't going to accomplish much in terms of actually getting the CPD to be more inclusive. How do you respond to that?

They are absolutely correct. The chances my rock will bring down Goliath, however, are infinitely higher if I actually pick it up and throw it in Goliath's general direction. Doing nothing is the last refuge of scoundrels. I want the right to complain bitterly at the results -- my work earns me that right. People who complain without lifting a finger to change things are uninteresting.

As an activist using the specific strategy and tactics you are using, can you explain to the skeptical layperson out there who may not be activists but who may be sympathetic to your end goals why the effort is worthwhile?

The right to complain about the results must be earned. Pitch in or shut up. Everyone does not have the luxury of spending as many hours per day working to reform the system as I do, but everyone has a few minutes a day when they could be doing something. I look for actions I can take which multiply the efforts other people can take. Give me your address and I will print and mail a letter to your senator, including a color graph with the results of a survey showing 98.3% of eligible voters want to see more than a two man debate. And if you don't think a hand-addressed letter to your senators, containing a letter with your name and address and signature on it, and a color graph so easy to understand even a US senator will not be confused, I do not believe you understand how politics works in Washington.

If you were not pursuing this particular tactic in trying to influence the CPD, what other tactics do you see as worth pursuing?

My tactics have changed almost daily since I began. I have thrown a lot of spaghetti at the wall. Sometimes I head home for the day feeling as if I may have run out of ideas, only to have a new one pop up before I reach the front steps. Of course, most of my brilliant ideas turn out to be considerably less than that. The key for me has always been learning from my mistakes and trying not to repeat them too many times. There is a way to open up the CPD, or to replace it entirely. I have no doubt someone will find that key. Whether it is me or not, I will always be able to say I tried, and the CPD felt my heat, whether they acknowledge it publicly or not.


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