The buying of the presidential debates

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This year’s presidential debates will be brought to you by beer, technology outsourcing, and bottled water, among others. The Commission on Presidential Debates, a tax-exempt corporation created and run by former chairmen of the two major political parties, announced nine “national sponsors” for the 2008 presidential debates (though its website offers no explanation of what national sponsorship actually entails).

Photo Courtesy George Bush Presidential Library and MuseumAs we examined at length in the Center’s “Two-Party Debates: A Corporate-Funded, Party-Created Commission Decides Who Debates — and Who Stays Home,” the Commission has refused to release the identities of all of its donors, but does single out these nine. They are (drum roll, please):

Anheuser-Busch Companies: The king of beer has sponsored every cycle since 1996, doling out a reported $550,000 to the Commission in 2000. Anheuser-Busch’s hometown, St. Louis, has also hosted at least one debate in all but one of the last five presidential elections. For its $550,000 contribution in 2000, the beer company was permitted to distribute pamphlets against taxes on beer at the event (though given that McCain’s wife is chair of one of its largest distributors, the company might not need to worry this year).

BBH New York: The U.S. branch of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, a British advertising agency. The company’s website lists the Commission as one of its 15 highlighted clients.

• The Howard G. Buffett Foundation: A charitable organization created by Howard Buffett, who is also member of the Commission’s board of directors. The son of billionaire investor William Buffett, he was a Republican elected official in Douglas County, Nebraska, but has given at least $1,000 to the Obama campaign. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation reported a $55,000 contribution to the 2004 debates in its financial disclosure statement.

Sheldon S. Cohen, Esq.: A first-time sponsor back in 1992, Cohen is a prominent tax attorney and was commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service under President Lyndon Johnson. He has also given at least $1,000 to the Obama campaign.

EDS, an HP Company: A global technology company, which brags on its website that it “founded the information technology outsourcing industry more than 46 years ago.”

International Bottled Water Association (incorrectly listed as the International Bottled Water Organization on the Commission’s site): As you might guess, this trade association reps the bottled water industry. Tom Lauria, the group’s VP for communications, told the Center that Daniel P. Felton, their director of government relations, is working on the debates pro bono in return for sponsorship recognition.

• The Kovler Fund (Blum-Kovler Foundation): A philanthropic organization that gave $30,000 to the Commission in 2004, according to its financial disclosure statement.

Kaiser Family Foundation: A nonprofit foundation focusing on health care issues.

YWCA USA: A national organization dedicated to “empowering women” and “eliminating racism.”

In 2004, the debate commission’s rules allowed both candidates a place to put a glass of water. Maybe this year’s rules will allow a bottle of Bud…

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