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George W. says he still isn’t ready to make a commitment on the
precise format of the televised presidential debates. So perhaps it
isn’t too soon for others to talk about making the debates genuinely
useful to the American people rather than just to the presidential
candidates of the major parties. And perhaps it is far too late.

The presidential debates, which used to be sponsored by the League of
Women Voters, a nominally nonpartisan organization, are now sponsored by
the Bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Note that “bi” is not
the same as “multi.” The commission consists of official representatives
from the Democrat and Republican parties, so it is not surprising that
it
has set the hurdle for participation by other candidates unreasonably
high, at 15 percent in the polls.

That sets up a nifty little Catch-22. As common sense would suggest and
as the experience when Ross Perot participated in presidential debates
generally
reinforces, the only way a minor party not running a billionaire
candidate is likely to approach 15 percent is to be included in the
debates. If the only way to get into the debates is to have 15 percent
in the polls first, none are likely to qualify, unless Ralph Nader’s
“priceless” TV ads make more of an immediate impact than seems likely.
And the two major parties’ interests in being seen as the only real
alternatives will be served.

There are arguably valid reasons for placing at least some
limitations on the number of participants in the debates. All kinds of
eccentric people file for
president and if you let all of them in the resulting forum would be
virtually unmanageable. All kinds of people who are not serious
candidates by any stretch of the imagination would get their moment in
the spotlight, which might be amusing but not especially edifying for
voters.

You could argue that a minor-party candidate should be required to
earn its way into the debate by raising a respectable amount of money
(which is a valid surrogate for political support, whatever puritanical
campaign reformers might say) and thus climbing in the polls. But
Republicans and Democrats are not positioned well to make such an
argument with a straight face. Their conventions were financed in large
part by the taxpayers and their candidates will get around $100 million
of the taxpayers’ money to run their campaigns.

Bush and Gore (or Gush and Bore, the fitting formulation Bill Maher
claims to have been the first to utter in public, if you prefer), in
short, are the Welfare Candidates. They have benefited not only from the
long history of their respective parties as the dominant parties and a
period in American life when civic commentators tended to extol the
sacred Two Party System as an American tradition and institution of at
least equal importance as the Bill of Rights in maintaining the American
Way of Life. Since campaign “reform,” their candidates have been
subsidized by the taxpayers. This year the Reform Party is slated to go
on welfare also, which is probably the best explanation for the ferocity
of the fight for control over the party and its mechanisms.

Insofar as the major parties enjoy not only the natural advantages
bestowed by history and tradition but outright subsidies from the
government, concern
for making the political process a chance not just to witness a
two-person arm-wrestling contest but an opportunity to raise issues and
concerns about the proper role of government and the range of options
available to the United States should dictate making it easier for other
parties to be heard in a
relatively low-cost way. If the presidential debates are there to serve
the American people rather than the two major parties, in other words,
the priority should be to include as wide a range of options and
approaches as possible. The American people — if democracy is
considered even reasonably viable as a form of governance — should be
trusted to sort through a range of options more complex than Tweedle
Dumb and Tweedle Dumber.

Of course you can’t allow everybody with a filing fee in some small
state to participate, but if those in charge of the debates really
wanted them to be a civic exercise rather than yet another way for the
Democrats and Republicans to reaffirm their dominance and strangle
pretenders, they could come up with reasonable criteria. Being on the
ballot in all 50 states is one test of seriousness and broad support,
especially since major-party legislators in many states have made ballot
access much more difficult than need be. Being
on the ballot in enough states to garner 270 electoral votes and
therefore, at least theoretically, to win the election is a criterion
that might be applied.

The simple fact is that every serious political observer knows that
besides the Welfare Candidates (which includes the Reform candidate this
year after
the courts sort out who gets the dole) that Ralph Nader of the Green
Party and Harry Browne of the Libertarian Party are serious and would
probably meet any reasonable set of criteria short of the outrageous
requirement of 15 percent in the polls. Ralph Nader has been a public
figure since the 1960s and the Green Party has constituted itself with
enough local chapters and organizational structure to be a substantial,
perhaps even permanent institution. The Libertarian Party has been in
existence since 1972, and while its candidates haven’t received
significant numbers of votes recently, it has been on the ballot in all
50 states for at least the last two national elections. It is a serious
national political organization with a serious and even reasonably
coherent alternative vision of where the country should be heading.

What acknowledging the possibility that presidential debates might be
something other than two-person fisticuffs would mean in practice, then,
is that at least one of the debates would include five candidates and
would be a bit more like a forum than a debate. That might not be as
clarifying (or as polarizing) as a two-person debate, but the logistics
would hardly be impossible. During the early stages of the primaries the
Republicans staged candidate forums with as many as seven or eight
candidates. Two years ago I was moderator for a forum of the minor-party
California gubernatorial candidates — five of them — at Chapman
University. While the format might not have been perfect, it worked and,
I dare say, featured much more serious discussion of more issues than
the major-party debates did.

Some may argue that the plain and simple fact is that either Gush or
Bore is going to win the election and the minor parties are just a
confusing sideshow of little interest to most mainstream voters. If the
minor-party candidates could earn their way into decent poll numbers
then they would deserve to be
included.

At the risk of repeating myself — though in fact it can’t be said
too often — this argument is undercut by the fact that the major
parties are Welfare Queens. What kind of poll numbers might Pat Buchanan
or Ralph Nader or Harry Browne have if they had $100 million of the
taxpayers’ money to bolster their campaigns? If only because of his
notoriety Nader would almost
certainly be polling at the unreasonable 15 percent level.

Keeping the minor parties out of the debates also betrays a
profoundly (though perhaps unconsciously so) cynical attitude toward
what presidential elections are all about in America. The civics-book
version should be something like offering the American people an
opportunity to consider a wide range of options, a real thoroughgoing
discussion of different alternative futures as determined by different
policies and philosophical approaches. A political campaign, in other
words, should be a wide-ranging discussion as well as a horse race.

The implicit assumption behind a determination to keep the
presidential debates a two-party affair is that little real discussion
is required in our democracy as presently constituted. History,
tradition and the rigging involved in subsidies from the public purse
have already narrowed the choice down to two considered safe by the
permanent establishment of bureaucracies and corporations that
contribute to both major contenders.

There is no reason, in this cynical view, to facilitate the public
hearing other voices, other options. The choice is between one branch or
another of the Permanent Government Party and that’s the way the
permanent government likes it. Forget all that hooey about minor parties
introducing ideas that might
eventually become mainstream even if their parties don’t win the
electoral prizes. This is about which of the acceptable alternatives
gets his hands on the levers of power, not about discussing options. Get
real. Politics is about power, not ideas.

The decision about whether to allow all candidates who meet
reasonable criteria into the presidential debates, then, depends on what
your view of the
function of the electoral process is in America. If the function of the
process is simply to decide which of the two pre-qualified (by history
and subsidy)
contenders will get the spoils, only the Republican and the Democrat
will be there.

If the function of an election is more broad-ranging, however –
about getting spoils, of course, but also about facilitating a national
conversation on governance, policies and programs, about alternative
views on issues like the drug war and foreign policy on which the major
parties are only millimeters apart — Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and
Harry Browne, at the very least, will be included. You could even make a
case for including Howard Philips. Let us see what our rulers think our
function in their game is.

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