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Capital Times
John Nichols

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Democrats and Republicans regularly begin the process of nominating their presidential candidates with multi-candidate fields.

And the parties happily sanction debates featuring six, seven or more candidates.

The open debates benefit the eventual nominees by helping them to sharpen their skills and focus in on issues that might not have been their focus if they had not had to face off against more ideologically driven competitors.

Why, then, do the former Republican and Democratic party chairs who run the Commission on Presidential Debates continue to erect unreasonable barriers to the inclusion of credible independent and third-party candidates in the fall debates?

The answer is simple: The commission is a private corporation set up by Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Paul Kirk with the sole purpose of ensuring that presidential "debates" are dull enough so that neither major-party contender is seriously harmed by the experience.

They do this by selecting cautious moderators and arranging formats that discourage a genuine give-and-take - turning what should be heated face-offs into little more than joint appearances. And they ensure that the rough balance of their pseudo debates is maintained by excluding serious third-party and independent candidates who would inject doses of ideology and passion into the proceedings.

Since Fahrenkopf and Kirk elbowed aside the League of Women Voters in 1987 and created the Commission on Presidential Debates, the United States has held three presidential elections in which third-party and independent contenders have been significant enough players that the winner was elected without a majority of the vote. George W. Bush won only 47.8 percent of the vote in 2000. Bill Clinton took 49 percent in 1996 and 43 percent in 1992.  In each of those years, millions of Americans voted for candidates other than the Democratic and Republican nominees. Yet all but one of those candidates was denied a place in the televised national debates in those years.

The only exception, Ross Perot in 1992, got a place on the stage because his poll numbers were so strong that the first President Bush and Clinton were forced to insist on his inclusion. In 1996, however, Perot was excluded, as was Ralph Nader. Four years later, Nader, again running on the Green Party line, and Pat Buchanan, the nominee of the Reform Party, were excluded, along with Libertarian and Constitution party contenders.

So it was that, in both 1996 and 2000, the American people were denied an opportunity to hear the ideas of candidates who held the balance of power in the popular vote and, in 2000, in the voting that would determine the makeup of the Electoral College.

That's an unacceptable circumstance. Walter Cronkite, a former presidential debate panelist, calls the commission-sponsored debates an "unconscionable fraud" set up with the purpose of "sabotaging the electoral process."

And a federal judge has ruled that the Commission on Presidential Debates may have violated federal law by excluding third-party presidential candidates in 2000.

Yet the commission is seeking to maintain the status quo by organizing another round of pseudo debates.

Luckily, there is an alternative this year. The Citizens' Debate Commission (, made up of representatives of more than 60 civic organizations, has proposed six debates with formats designed to foster serious discussion and with barriers to third-party candidates dramatically reduced. Any candidate who is on enough state ballots to conceivably win the presidency and who has gained 5 percent in a pre-debate poll or whose views a majority of Americans tell pollsters they want to hear could be included.

Under the Citizens' Debate Commission standards, Democratic and Republican candidates would, of course, be included - and John Kerry and George W. Bush should accept their invites. And under the liberal reading of those standards, it is likely that candidates of the Libertarian, Constitution and Green parties would be in. Depending on his ballot-status fights, Nader could be as well.

Will Nader get on a sufficient number of state ballots to meet the "conceivably electable" standard? Probably, although it could be a close call.

Nader was denied places on the Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Illinois ballots last week. That means Wisconsin could be critical for his candidacy. Despite the fact that he lacks the Green and Progressive Dane support he had in 2000, Nader is on target to gain Badger State ballot status - thanks in no small part to the hard work of a cadre of International Socialist Organization activists in Madison.

Nader has paid staffers working hard to meet the ballot requirements in states around the country, as this column explained last week. But his aides want it noted that the director of their state effort here has been provided with only a phone and a small petty-cash fund. So noted.