A revealing national poll of likely voters, released on April 10, found Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in third place behind George W. Bush and Al Gore -- and ahead of prospective Reform candidate Pat Buchanan. So which alternative-party aspirant appeared all over national TV the next night? It wasn't Nader.
Asked to give his views as a candidate on issues from trade to economics to Elian, Buchanan held forth at length on "Decision 2000 with Andrea Mitchell" (MSNBC), "News with Brian Williams" (CNBC/MSNBC) and "Special Report with Brit Hume" (Fox News Channel). Hume referred to "all three presidential candidates," meaning Bush, Gore and Buchanan-- no mention of Nader.
Despite his extreme right-wing views, Buchanan has long been well treated by the supposedly "liberal media." The first pundit with a perch on national television seven days a week, he's been propelled into presidential politics by CNN for three different campaigns. Although he's been running for over a year this time, he received only 3.6 percent support in the new Zogby poll.
Nader, who announced his full-throttle presidential campaign less than two months ago, received 5.7 percent in the poll. In Western states, Nader received 13 percent support, compared to Gore's 30 percent. Yet public citizen Nader, a widely respected figure in American life for decades, is generally ignored by the same national media outlets and pundits that regularly include Buchanan in their coverage of the presidential race.
Imagine what Nader's poll numbers would be if his candidacy weren't so ignored by national media.
Which brings up this fall's presidential debates. You don't have to be Gov. Jesse Ventura to understand that only candidates included in the debates will have a shot at winning the election. Because civic groups and mainstream media in Minnesota decided to allow an unorthodox third-party candidate (initially derided as an unelectable "spoiler") into debates alongside the two major party candidates, Ventura became governor.
Given their impact on elections, it's shameful that presidential debates-- including the decisions over who gets to participate-- have been entrusted to a private Commission on Presidential Debates entirely controlled by the two major parties.
The 38 percent of Americans who, according to a 1999 Gallup poll, consider themselves independent of the Democrats and Republicans, are not represented on the CPD, which is bankrolled by the same big corporations that heavily fund the two major parties. Phillip Morris funded Commission debates in 1992 and '96; Anheuser-Busch donated a half-million dollars to become "sole sponsor" of the presidential debate in St. Louis this year. And you thought beer companies sponsored only ball games.
In 1996, the CPD excluded Reform Party candidate Ross Perot from debates, even though he was on every state's ballot, had received federal matching funds and had won 19 percent of the vote four years earlier. This year, the Commission vows to exclude all candidates below 15 percent in national opinion polls, even though candidates qualify for federal funds by winning a mere 5 percent of the vote.
The 15 percent hurdle for debate entry (which would have locked out Jesse Ventura in Minnesota) is especially high for the grassroots youth-oriented campaign of Nader, since national media rarely let voters know he's running.
A more inclusive approach comes from an independent task force on presidential debates convened by American University law professor Jamin Raskin. Debates would include any candidate who has 5 percent support in national polls (which would admit Nader); or who represents a party that won five percent of votes in the previous election (which would admit Buchanan if he's the Reform nominee); or who national polls show a majority of the public wants included.
The recent Zogby poll found that majorities support the inclusion of both Nader and Buchanan in the debates even if they are below 15 percent in polls.
A country that suffers from low voter turnout and high voter cynicism shouldn't exclude third parties, including ones with bigoted nominees like Buchanan. Perot may be bizarre at times, but his campaign energized the 1992 race and brought interest and issues to that year's debates. So did Ventura in Minnesota. Such campaigns boost voter turnout and often attract young voters. The Republican Party started as a third party because the two major parties would not countenance their fringe idea: abolition of slavery.
A democracy cannot long survive with tweedledum-tweedledee debates sponsored by beer companies. A debate limited to Bush-Gore means that many issues will go uncontested for lack of disagreement: corporate welfare; military spending; "free trade"; biotechnology; the corporate takeover of medicine, media and agriculture; etc.
The TV networks need not cede any authority to a Commission on Presidential Debates whose purpose is to enforce a closed two-party cartel. The networks-- perhaps PBS or a cable channel-- could step forward and set their own terms, extending their own invitations for a series of debates, leaving empty seats for candidates who fail to appear.
If television conspires with the Commission to exclude Nader from the debates, and his poll numbers are above 5 percent, don't be surprised to find youthful protesters descending on the debate site with the fervor deployed against corporate globalism in Seattle a few months ago. Actually, if there's one individual most responsible for the new wave of protests against corporate exploitation, it's 66-year-old Ralph Nader.
If you thought Patrick Buchanan was responsible, you're watching too much TV.
A version of this appeared in the Baltimore Sun (4/16/00).