Debates should include more candidates

MADISON, Wis. (U-Wire) — Rarely can one say that Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump are in agreement over any issue, whether it be the protection of American workers or the legalization of prostitution. Yet, such a phenomenon occurred over winter break in response to a decision by an obscure, yet very important, bipartisan commission.
It was a decision to limit the participants in future presidential debates to those who have at least 15 percent of the support on average in five different nationally conducted polls. To front runners like George W. Bush and Al Gore, this decision is a blessing because it ensures that national attention will focus solely on the issues in contention between Republicans and Democrats. For a group like the Reform Party, it means candidates will have virtually no chance to debate the parties’ views on a national stage.
The Commission on Presidential Debates’ decision has wide-ranging effects on the health of American democracy. Presidential debates have long been a way to express alternative ideas that may not always get the attention of the media.
For instance, Ross Perot, in 1992, used the debates to emphasize his flat-tax proposal. The exposure he received helped to garner him 19 percent of the popular vote in the ’92 election as well as make the flat tax a hotly debated issue within mainstream politics. Perot was able to have a profound effect on the ’92 elections because he was considered a legitimate candidate. Part of that legitimacy came from his participation and performance in presidential debates.
Instead of limiting the number of candidates, the commission should expand the number and size of the debates to introduce more ideas into mainstream culture. America is a vast country filled with diverse political ideas and inventive solutions to national problems. By expanding the scope of debate, society can tap into those resources, broaden its understanding of the world and produce effective public policy.
One example would be Wisconsin’s former Sen. Robert M. LaFollete who, in 1924, helped to bring the special interest contributions of that era to the attention of the American people by running as a member of the Progressive Party. LaFollete was an underdog candidate with no realistic chance of winning the presidency, but through his national exposure he was able to force the mainstream politicians to look at campaign and contribution reforms.
Introducing new ideas to the public is especially important with today’s media monopolies. With more mergers and alliances being formed daily, the diversity of news coverage is slowly deteriorating, leaving the public with no exposure to more radical viewpoints.
The mass media helps to establish the issues of a campaign based on what it chooses to portray to the public. A third-party candidate will be largely ignored by the big media conglomerates, leaving the candidate with only two options to gain attention: spend large amounts of private money or rally enough grass-roots support to be noticed by the national news. Publicly financed, inclusive debates could be another option open to those candidates with little wealth.
It is very important that there be competition in every aspect of capitalist America –especially in the political arena. America relies on the concept of a free market that offers a variety of products. This allows the consumer to compare and choose the best product.
The same should be true with an election campaign. A voter should have as many choices as possible to properly judge which offers the best solutions to America’s problems. As it stands there is an oligopoly by the two dominant parties and the commission’s decision is an attempt by the oligopoly to maintain its control over the marketplace of ideas.
The established parties want to force their competition to find other ways to convey their messages. If we, as citizens and voters, allow this to happen, we may soon find a party with a monopoly over the “correct” political ideas.
So next time you sit at home and wonder at the nonsense being debated between Gore and Bill Bradley, realize there are alternatives to the two answers being given and the reason they are not represented is because of decisions made by groups like the Commission on Presidential Debates. Groups who have narrowed, perhaps inadvertently, the options available to voters by establishing rules that restrict — rather than encourage — political involvement.
Braden Smith’s column originally appeared in Friday’s University of Wisconsin paper, The Daily Cardinal.