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NBC's Luke Russert: Commission on Presidential Debates the 'FIFA of Politics'

Created: 27 July, 2015
Updated: 16 October, 2022
5 min read

"Republicans and Democrats disagree on a lot," said Luke Russert of NBC News on Friday, July 17, "but they are in agreement when it comes time to shut out other voices."

Russert was interviewing James K. Glassman, the former George W. Bush administration official who is among the 50 signers of a letter demanding that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) change its rules, which effectively bar an independent candidate from appearing in those critical contests.

The CPD is dominated by party regulars, including its two co-chairmen: Frank Fahrenkopf, former chair of the Republican National Committee, and Mike McCurry, former press secretary to Bill Clinton. By denying an independent a chance to stand on the stage in the final fall presidential debates, the CPD is denying an independent a chance to be president - even though, as Russert pointed out at the start of his program,

independents outnumber Democrats and Republicans by 45% to 27% to 20%, respectively.

Russert blasted the CPD in his interview, at one point saying, "I've always joked that is the...FIFA of politics." FIFA, of course, is the scandal-ridden organization that oversees international soccer.

"Often," Russert said, "voters will stop me in the airport or stop me in a bar and say, "Why do we have only two choices? I mean, there are so many different viewpoints in the United States." The answer to why we have so few choices: the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Russert asked whether there was a good chance that the CPD would see the light and change its restrictive rules (as American voters, by a two-to-one margin, want them to do).

Glassman said there was. "This is a serious, serious effort, and we are having an effect."

He also noted that others want to get rid of the CPD altogether - the almost certain result if the recommendations of the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Campaign Debate Reform are adopted. Glassman said that the CPD has the opportunity to improve the health of democracy, but "this may be their last chance to show their responsibility."

"I agree with you," said Russert.

Ackerman on Smerconish

A few days earlier, Peter Ackerman appeared on The Michael Smerconish Program on the POTUS Politics channel of Sirius XM. Ackerman, the former chairman of both Freedom House and the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, is chairman of Level the Playing Field, which, along with Change the Rule, is pushing to open up the debates (listen to the segment here).

Like Russert, Smerconish prefaced the discussion by noting that polls show that an all-time record proportion of American voters view themselves as independents. Not R's, not D's, but I's. Smerconish asked the question, "Don't the I's deserve a seat at the table come the fall of 2016 in the presidential debates?"

According to Smerconish's listeners, the answer is an overwhelming "yes!" In fact, 90% of respondents to the program's online poll said the presidential debate rules should be changed to allow independent or third-party candidates a place on the stage.

Ackerman also raised the idea - gaining currency now around the country - for "America's Primary," an online election to determine the single independent who will participate in the debates. Smerconish called the idea "very intriguing" and expressed hope that the CPD would support it. A national independent primary won't draw top talent unless the Commission guarantees a slot in the fall debates for the winner.

Meanwhile, Ackerman's group, Level the Playing Field (which also publishes this newsletter), has filed a federal lawsuit to force the CPD's hand.

Glassman on Medved

The same day that Ackerman appeared on Smerconish's program, Ambassador Glassman was a guest for an hour on the nationally syndicated Michael Medved Show, where he echoed Ackerman's sentiments. (You can listen to the interview featured in the recent news section here.)

Medved opened the program stating, "The dominant political party in the United States, according to every public opinion poll you want to read, is independents - people who fall in the middle." He then asked why it is so difficult for independents to run outside the two-party system?


Jesse Ventura weighs in on the lawsuit and the need to open up the debates.

The answer, as Glassman explained, is that the presidential debate system is rigged against independent candidates, and the CPD needs to change its rules to allow for a third, independent candidate to participate and have an honest chance of being considered as a candidate for president.

By the way, Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chair of the CPD, later appeared on the Smerconish program and tried to assure listeners that the Commission's 17 members are not wearing partisan hats when considering the issue of who participates in the debates. Instead, he said, they wear USA hats.

So far, the hat exchange is not evident. Members of the Commission have in this cycle hosted fundraisers or endorsed Democratic or Republican candidates. CPD directors give enormous campaign contributions to one party or the other, and some directors have even admitted, flat-out, that their job is to make sure that Americans have two choices, and not more.

But Fahrenkopf did recognize that the CPD has got to do something to get the American public to have more confidence in the political system. He expressed confidence that the access rules for the 2016 presidential debates will achieve this goal.

The goal is certainly correct, and the way to do it is on the table: The CPD could endorse the creation of America's Primary, and award, as its prize, a place for an independent on the stage with the Republican and Democratic candidates in the fall debates.

Editor's note: This article originally published on Presidential debate News on July 23, 2015, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN.