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Sharing the Stage

Michael J. Ring

If there ever were an election which cried for a strong third (and fourth) party challenge, surely it’s this year’s sorry presidential race. Despite the repeated bashings each inflicts on the other, George W. Bush and Al Gore are much closer in ideology than either is willing to admit. Take the death penalty: as Bush rightfully takes serious flak for running an execution mill in the state of Texas, Gore is nowhere to be seen or heard on the issue. That’s because Gore supports the death penalty as well, and presumably would have done exactly what Bush has were the vice-president the governor of Texas. Or how about Social Security? Both Bush and Gore want to float pensions on Wall Street. While Gore’s plan would add on to current Social Security benefits and Bush’s would divert some current benefits to the stock market, the central idea of each candidate’s position -- a portion of Social Security should be invested in the stock market -- is essentially the same.

On trade, Bush and Gore see eye to eye. Both are ardent supporters of NAFTA and the WTO. Both are fighting for passage of permanent normal trade relations for China over the objections of significant blocs in each of their respective parties.

The two candidates also share the same internationalist bent on foreign policy. Bush, for example, refused to join many other Republicans in criticizing the administration’s decision to bomb Yugoslavia. A Bush White House would likely be just as engagement-oriented as the Clinton-Gore administration has been.

And the rhetoric from the two candidates sounds like a broken record. Trying to determine which candidate made a statement about the need for tougher education standards, or the need to find environmental solutions which are economically friendly, are futile because both candidates say nearly exactly the same thing on these and other issues. The Democratic and Republican parties are unwilling to offer American voters a true choice on many of these issues. Fortunately, there are candidates who can fill the ideological vacuums left by the major parties’ hasty rush to the center.

Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee, and Pat Buchanan, the presumptive Reform Party nominee, each have the potential to make a respectable showing in November’s election. Currently, Nader is polling at about six percent nationally -- though his support is nearing 10 percent in California and other states with environmentally-conscious populations. Buchanan is currently polling between three and four percent, though he will surely get a bounce from the Reform Party convention in August. Together, Buchanan and Nader would take the vote of 1 in 10 American voters were the election held today, and, as more Americans tune into the election and realize the many similarities between Bush and Gore, the ranks of those looking for a third party alternative will swell.

While 10 percent is a significant proportion of Americans, it isn’t good enough for the Commission on Presidential Debates, the group which sets the rules for participation in the nationally televised face-offs. The Commission demands that a candidate win 15 percent in polls before he or she is invited to debate, a rule which guarantees that the vast majority of independent and third-party candidates will never be introduced to voters.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is ostensibly a nonpartisan organization. In reality, it is bipartisan, controlled by the two major parties which have a vested interest in keeping viable third-party candidates on the sidelines. Not surprisingly, its harsh rules typically result in exclusion of candidates who are neither Republicans nor Democrats.

The Commission argues that its role is not to make candidates “viable.” But most third-party candidates require participation in the debates to achieve viability. The Commission’s stance debases American democracy: it essentially shuts out all but the very wealthy who can afford to finance their own campaigns (such as Ross Perot) from participating as presidential candidates or as an independent or third-party members.

The success of independent candidates in state and municipal races would not have occurred had the Commission’s rules been in force. Consider the experience in Minnesota, where independent candidate Jesse Ventura was elected governor in 1998. Before the debates, Ventura polled under the 15 percent that the commission enforces as a test for viability. Yet his crushing performance in the debates is exactly what allowed Ventura to connect with voters. Ventura could have never won the election had the Commission’s unreasonable rules governed the Minnesota elections.

Consider as well that parties receive federal matching funds for their presidential candidates by winning just five percent of the vote. Buchanan, as the Reform Party nominee, will be eligible for $12 million in matching funds on the basis of Perot’s showing in 1996. To suggest that the Buchanan candidacy is viable enough to receive federal money but not viable enough to be included in the debates is absurd.

If the Democratic and Republican parties are too paranoid to allow third-party candidates into the presidential debates, then they should not be allowed to control the process through a puppet organization. Responsibility for the debates should devolve onto a truly independent, nonpartisan organization, like the League of Women Voters. In fact, the League used to administer the debates: its decision to invite independent candidate John Anderson to the 1980 debates angered the parties and led to its replacement by the Commission.

Of course, not every one of the tens of candidates running for president can be invited to debate. But the 15 percent test is much too high. A 5 percent cutoff, the one used to determine which parties receive federal monies, is more sensible. Five percent is still a formidable percentage for third-party candidates, and a cutoff at that level allows the strongest independent candidates to participate in the debates without resulting in a glut of candidates on the stage.

Practically, a 5 percent test would allow both Nader and Buchanan to participate in the debates -- bringing two voices which are sorely needed into the mainstream of the presidential election process. A more inclusive debate will allow for discussion of a wider variety of issues. Nader will force Gore to account for the latter’s support of welfare reform and the death penalty, Buchanan will question Bush on immigration and English-only laws, and both the Green and Reform nominees will undoubtedly focus on the frontrunners’ solid support for globalism. These are important issues, surely ones which should be treated to a lively debate instead of a discussion of the few shades of gray separating the Democrat and Republican on these issues.

With so many areas of agreement between the two major party candidates in this election, a full and balanced political discussion demands that Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, the two strongest third-party candidates and the two candidates willing to take challenging or unique viewpoints, be included as full participants in the national political discussion. If the Commission on Presidential Debates is unwilling to tear down its artificially high barriers to third-party participation, then democracy demands that the Commission itself be torn down and replaced.