Third parties a cure for what ails us

The commission, and by extension Congress, doesn’t want another podium up there.

After yawning at those two sleeping pills in the presidential debates last week, I got to wondering: Why, in our “info-tainment”-driven McSociety, where we mix all of our cultural cocktails with one part reality and two parts celebrity, would we settle for two colossal bores at our venerated podiums of the crossroads of the next four years’ political discourse?

And then to have Jim Lehrer at the moderator’s helm, whose PBS “NewsHour” is about as fast and furious as a funeral procession. Lehrer’s idea of between-segment banter on his show? Forget topical, soup-of-the-day issue humor. Forget an Andy Rooney-style soapbox. It’s wan, toothless smiling.

Please.

All I can say is: Former Gov. Jesse Ventura, where art thou?

What the milk carton says is missing from these debates is the color, panache and clear-eyed gumption of a third-party candidate. Texas billionaire Ross Perot could audition successfully for “Looney Tunes” anytime, but at least his pie charts and “Albuquerque big sucking sound” metaphor for U.S. job losses provided some much-needed A.1. Steak Sauce to an otherwise saltine 1992 presidential election season.

The culprit for this quadrennial prattlefest is – and Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader will remind you if you forget – the bipartisan private entity known as Commission on Presidential Debates.

Formed in 1998, this collection of Democratic and Republican party hacks has successfully excluded any third candidate from the past two presidential elections – by setting the ridiculously arbitrary bar of 15 percent support in meaningless media polls in order to participate in the most important discussions of our country’s condition.

As the Seattle Times editorialized, “The 15 percent threshold suits the two parties. It unduly restricts the American people.” Seventy-six percent of registered voters said they wanted Ross Perot in the 1996 debates. Sixty-four percent said they wanted Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in the 2000 debates. This is an overwhelming majority. What gives?

As the two major parties and their funding sources have become increasingly similar, we as the public have become thirstier for alternative voices. We flock to a Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or a former Democratic Vermont Gov. Howard Dean candidacy, only to see them go the way of the dodo bird once they reach the corny fields of Iowa.

If this so-called commission (by the way, who commissioned it? I didn’t, did you?) wants to rely on polling data for its criteria, so be it. It’s simply using the wrong polling question. It should just ask the public whom it wants to see in the debates.

How are we supposed to know which candidate we want if we can’t see them duke it out Lincoln-Douglas-style on TV? Whether the candidate is at 15 or 5 percent, taxpayer money pays into his or her campaign. Shouldn’t we get what we pay for?

The reason we don’t is because the commission, and by extension Congress as a whole, doesn’t want another podium up there. Because if there were, Democrats and Republicans would quickly be exposed by the plain truths of the outsider and thrust into the harsh light of day for the shams they are. The proletariat would agitate and fill the streets and – worst of all – might choose someone else outside the sandbox come Nov. 2.

If we can’t have Nader on the stage, why not have him at the moderator’s desk? He’s been asking the tough questions of Bush-Kerry clones for 40 years; and he’s funny, too. And no one could accuse him of being partisan; his disdain for both parties is equal.

Alas, this will take years. In the meantime, let’s try for some charisma in our candidates that exceeds that of a mantis. Well, let’s at least try for one that chirps more than Kerry and prays less than Bush.

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]