On September 21, 2008, the major party campaigns negotiated a
detailed contract that dictated the terms of the vice-presidential
debate. The contract limited the candidates' responses to 90 seconds,
discouraged the moderator from asking follow-up questions and
prohibited the candidates from asking each other questions. The
Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation created by
the Republican and Democratic parties, agreed to implement and conceal
the debate contract.
"Instead of standing up to the Republican and Democratic candidates, the Commission on Presidential Debates capitulated to their demands," said George Farah, Executive Director of Open Debates. "As a result, the vice-presidential debate resembled more of a bipartisan press conference, and Biden and Palin ignored questions with impunity. The partisan, corporate-funded Commission on Presidential Debates should be replaced with a non-partisan, publicly-funded debate sponsor that will operate transparently and champion the public interest."
From 1976 until 1988, a genuinely nonpartisan organization did in fact sponsor the debates: the League of Women Voters. In 1984, when the Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale campaigns vetoed 68 proposed debate moderators, the League of Women Voters held a press conference and criticized the candidates for "abusing the process." Four years later, when the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns drafted the first secret debate contract, the League of Women Voters made the document public and accused the campaigns of "perpetrating a fraud on the American voter."
In 1986, the Republican and Democratic National Committees ratified an agreement "to take over the presidential debates" from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. Fifteen months later, then-Republican Party chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then-Democratic Party chair Paul Kirk incorporated the Commission on Presidential Debates. Fahrenkopf and Kirk still co-chair the Commission on Presidential Debates, and every four years it implements and conceals contracts jointly drafted by the Republican and Democratic nominees.