On the lower-tier candidates

The “lower-tier” presidential candidates are important because they air views often considered “out of bounds.”

Jason Stahl

During the Democratic presidential debate this past Sunday night, Sen. Chris Dodd’s campaign kept what they called a “Talk Clock” to keep track of the amount of time each of the eight candidates (Dodd included) was allowed to speak. The results were not surprising to those who have been following these early debates. So-called “top-tier” candidates like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards (in that order) received the most speaking time while the other five candidates played catch-up.

I guess none of this should be much of a shock. This “tiering” of candidates has gone on for quite a long time in modern presidential politics and arises from a pernicious self-reinforcing loop of money, media and public polling that is extremely hard for a “lower-tier candidate” to break. Mass media coverage of candidates attracts big money to those campaigns and vice versa, while both are likely to drive up polling numbers for the candidates. These polls then are used as justification for giving certain candidates more media coverage – thus starting the loop all over again. These candidates, then, become “top-tier” – an arena that is very hard for other candidates to break into.

Theoretically, debates might be a place where the field could be leveled, but as we saw in Sunday’s debate, this usually is not the case. Many Americans might be fine with this dynamic, but I want to make the case that the “lower-tier” candidates serve an important purpose – particularly in the debates, where they can often air views which have been deemed by various elite opinion makers and politicians to be “out of bounds.” Because this can allow the parameters of the debate to be stretched, all candidates need to be given as equal time as possible.

For example, even with limited time in the Democratic and Republican debates thus far, two candidates are similarly challenging elite consensus opinion regarding the need for a militarized U.S. foreign policy. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) both brought to their respective debates views on U.S. foreign policy which are often considered heresy. Kucinich, for instance, advocated a 25 percent reduction in the Pentagon’s budget. He also argued that “peace is the way we reflect our strength,” and that the American military is best when used as “a strong peacekeeping force” in order “to end the United States’ commitment to war as an instrument of diplomacy.”

Ron Paul took this critique of a militarized foreign policy even further in the May 15 Republican presidential debate when he argued for a “noninterventionist foreign policy.” When directly asked by the moderator whether Sept. 11 made such a policy outmoded, Paul responded that it was various interventions by the United States in the past that helped to bring about Sept. 11. He inquired of his questioner, “Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we’ve been over there.” He argued that the 14 permanent bases currently going up in Iraq were yet another example of this bad policy.

Predictably, every Republican on stage sought to take a potshot at Paul for his comments and to showcase that they wanted to continue Bush’s militarized foreign policy. But this is precisely the reason “lower-tier” candidates like Paul and Kucinich should be given as level a playing field as possible in the debates – because they can address the various “third-rail” discussions which exist in American politics. In this case they can, in both parties, directly raise the question of whether America will be an empire – a question which most of the “top-tier” candidates don’t want to discuss.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]