This is another of my slightly off-topic rants, and I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion of politics once more into what should be all about the beer, but with a very important election just around the corner I just can’t help myself. Tonight is the final debate between the two major-party candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, and naturally no third-party candidates will be invited to participate in this evening’s debate.
That’s old news, but what perhaps you didn’t know is that Anheuser-Busch is one of eight major sponsors of the four debates (three presidential and one vice-presidential) through the corporate-funded, tax-exempt Commission on Presidential Debates, which essentially stole the right to stage debates from the League of Women Voters in 1988.
The first televised debates were sponsored solely by the major television networks, but in 1976 the League of Women Voters took over the debates. The League then held the next three debate cycles, through 1984. Apparently, both the Democratic and Republican parties didn’t like the League’s management of the debates, primarily because they told the parties what to do and wouldn’t cede enough control of the process to them. Frankly, that seems like the right approach to me, because as long as everyone is treated the same, how exactly is that unfair? But instead, here’s what happened, according to an account by the Center for Public Integrity.
Then, as Connie Rice, a prominent Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer and commentator on National Public Radio, characterizes it, “The debates were hijacked.” In 1988, the two major political parties seized control — against the wishes of the League of Women Voters. The Democratic and Republican national committees argued in a joint press release that their co-sponsorship would “better fulfill our party responsibilities to inform and educate the electorate, strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process and, most important of all . . . institutionalize the debates, making them an integral and permanent part of the presidential debate process.” Rather than trying to change the way the League ran the debates, the two national party chairmen simply “commissioned” their own “independent” debate entity — and put themselves in charge.
With that, the Commission on Presidential Debates came into existence, led by then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. and then-Republican National Committee Chairman Frank H. Fahrenkopf Jr. They hired one full-time employee, a Republican former Senate staffer named Janet Brown. The three have led the Commission since its inception, with a board of directors made up primarily of committed partisans from the two major parties. The Commission sponsors and produces the debates, picks the locations, sets the rules, selects the moderators, and determines which candidates participate.
The New York Times recently had their own take on the CPD entitled In Staging Events, Debate Commission Gets Help From Corporate America. Their account includes more about Anheuser-Busch’s participation. A-B has been a major sponsor since 1996, and they’ve been the only sponsor to contribute money to the CPD each of the last four elections. According to the Times’ article, not everybody is happy with this arrangement.
“We are very concerned,” said George Farah, executive director at Open Debates, a nonpartisan group critical of the commission. “We don’t think that this most sacred forum should be brought to you by Anheuser-Busch.”
Corporations are barred from making campaign contributions, but they can donate to the Commission on Presidential Debates, whose two co-chairmen are former heads of the two major political parties. In addition, sponsors receive tickets to the events allowing them to “hobnob with campaign staff advisers and managers who will be senior advisers in the next administration,” Mr. Farah said.
The Times’ article continues about Anheser-Busch, and A-B defends their sponsorship of the debates.
By far the most prominent backer is Anheuser-Busch, a debate sponsor since 1992. Not only does the beer company donate directly to the commission, but it also sponsors a hospitality tent at each debate, where members of the news media and others who are working can receive free food, beer and other refreshments.
“We hope our hospitality area will provide a welcome opportunity to relax with some great food and ice-cold beverages,” said an Anheuser-Busch invitation to the tent. “If you’re looking for a little entertainment, you’ll be able to watch some of our latest television spots and enter a drawing for a chance to win a Budweiser fire pit, perfect for outdoor gatherings this fall.”
Francine Katz, vice president for communications and corporate affairs at Anheuser-Busch, declined to say how much the company spent on the debates, except that it is “a very significant sum.” Compared with events like the Olympics and the political conventions, the debates offer minimal opportunities for Anheuser-Busch to promote its brand, she said.
Others have raised concerns, as well, such as media and social critic David Rosen in his piece, Debates a Sham, No Argument. Then there’s two interesting articles by Allison Kilkenny, Meet Your Debate Sponsors! and Presidential Hate Week.
With much, if not most, of Republican hopeful John McCain’s fortunes coming from his wife’s Anheuser-Busch distributorship, it’s hard to avoid speculating about what this all means, and it does seem to raise some perception issues, at the very least. I keep coming back to how easily A-B managed to get the California Trash & Trinkets bill passed earlier this year, despite overwhelming opposition and being the only beer company supporting it. With that much political clout, can there be any doubt that sponsoring the debates sends the message to all politicians that what’s good for A-B, is good for the country. And in my mind, that’s just not how democracy is supposed to work.