Let them debate

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 18, 2000

When I was younger I used to believe that elections were about ideas. It only took working in one election to disabuse me of that naiveté and learn that they are really about image. Later, as a journalist, I was privy to something that most regular folks don't experience at a highly competent level: being spun. And spinning is all about image.

That's why Republicans and Democrats don't want people like Ralph Nader, Patrick Buchanan and Harry Browne to participate in presidential debates. None of those three will poll higher than the low single digits and they are true believers. Sum those two concepts and you have what George W. Bush and Al Gore fear most: a real debate.

When Gore and Bush finally get around to being in the same room and talking at each other, they won't be looking to debate ideas but to score points. In other words, to enhance their image. Nader, Buchanan and Browne, on the other hand, aren't all that interested in burnishing their image. They want to argue the ideas that see them run in election after election with little chance of victory.

Admittedly, the vast majority of Americans don't care if so-called fringe candidates are invited to the podium since they know that the election will come down to Bush or Gore and the inclusion of as many as three other candidates will dilute their ability to discuss the issues. That, however, is not an argument for not allowing third party candidates a chance to speak to the electorate. There are several good arguments for including as many candidates as possible.

Nader, Browne and Buchanan

The first is obvious: Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats need the advantage of a debate. Both parties have millions of members, millions of dollars, and plenty of opportunity to get their message out to everyone interested in hearing it. Nader, Buchanan and Browne, candidates who also represent millions of voters, do not have those opportunities.

The first point leads into the second. Democracies are vibrant when more voices are given a chance to participate in dialogue. As the percentage of Americans who vote in presidential elections continues to fall year after year, it's evident that the two main parties are not representing the beliefs of millions of Americans. By not allowing them to participate, third parties are stopped from perhaps becoming second or first parties.

A good example of this is a recent Rasmussen Research poll that found that as much as 16 per cent of the American electorate agrees with the ideals contained in the platform of the Libertarian Party, more than those who identified themselves as liberals (13 per cent) or conservative (7 per cent). Since the media largely ignores that platform, Americans don't know that a viable alternative exists. An open debate would at least mitigate their failure.

It would also bring issues to the fore that neither candidate has discussed. As an example, Seattle was witness to violent demonstrations during meetings the World Trade Organization, suggesting that the issue of trade is significant to many Americans. While Gore and Bush may touch upon the issue, Nader would bring his strong anti-corporate agenda to the table, Buchanan his fiercely protectionist platform, and Browne his laissez-faire capitalist ideal.

When you contrast the positions of Gore and Bush, you find that they are different ultimately only by degrees and would hardly inspire real debate. The inclusion of third party candidates would certainly solve that. Ross Perot proved that single-handedly.

None of this will happen, however, until the allegedly nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates is removed from sponsoring and producing debates for presidential and vice presidential candidates. The CPD's board of directors - made up of people like Caroline Kennedy and John Danforth - encompasses all political viewpoints...so long as they are either Republican or Democrat.

Bush and Gore may want to make this election about image but Americans shouldn't allow that to happen during the debates. To ensure that, the representatives of the people - the media - should also be demanding the inclusion of third parties. Apart from making great copy when the two main candidates are nailed with an especially salient point, it would also fulfill the media's mandate of bringing the whole story to the people. The candidates may be trying to spin us, but it doesn't mean that we have to buy into it. Allowing third parties would ensure that. At least for a few nights.

State and federal election laws make it all but impossible that a third party will challenge the status quo - like the Republican Party did in the 1850s - but they can at least help shape the terms and bounds of political discussion which is what elections were created for in the first place. Allowing Nader, Buchanan and Browne will do just that.

Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer and the editor in chief of weekly online magazine Enter Stage Right.

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