Sep 24 2000

Why Not Open the Debates to Others?

We are media critics and commentators who are rarely unanimous in our opinions. Yet we are united in our belief that voters would be better served by broader debates than those sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. We believe that the American people should have, at the very least, one nationally televised opportunity to see Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee, Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party nominee, and Harry Browne, the Libertarian Party nominee, go up against Al Gore and George W. Bush.

This year, the commission plans to exclude minor-party candidates who lack 15 percent support in national polls. From the point of view, perhaps, of the commission, this arbitrary threshold makes sense; after all, the commission is controlled by the two parties. But 15 percent is too high; that’s triple the level of voter support that a presidential candidate needs to win federal matching funds.

If such a 15 percent threshold had been applied to the 1998 gubernatorial debates in Minnesota, many of the state’s voters might never have seen Jesse Ventura, the candidate they ultimately judged to be the most appealing. Mr. Ventura was at 10 percent in the polls before the debates; he won in November with 37 percent of the vote. Just as important, turnout surged in Minnesota, even though it declined in most states that year.

Indeed, wider debates generate wider enthusiasm all through the process. In 1992, when Ross Perot was included in the presidential debates (because both major parties calculated it would benefit them), they were viewed by 90 million people, with the audience growing in each successive debate. In 1996, with Mr. Perot excluded by the commission, viewership collapsed, averaging only 41 million people. And November turnout collapsed, too.

The decision to close the debates may have been made mostly for administrative and technical convenience. That’s good for debate who worry about negotiating complicated debate protocols and camera angles, but it’s bad for those millions of Americans who might like to see a genuine argument about issues on which Al Gore and George W. Bush largely agree, such as global trade, the drug war and the death penalty.

As believers in free speech and in the marketplace of ideas, we five think a better approach would be to invite – at least to the first debate– any candidate on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical chance of winning an Electoral College majority (which means they’ve overcome often difficult ballot-access hurdles). This year, that would mean a first debate involving seven candidates: Messrs. Bush, Gore, Nader, Buchanan and Browne, and also John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party and Howard Phillips of the Constitution Party.

Another approach would be to invite only candidates who have either 5 percent support in national polls or at least 50 percent of the American people favoring their inclusion. Under this standard, the debates next month would likely include Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan.

In an era of decline in major-party affiliation and a rise in independent voters, presidential debates should not be controlled by the two major parties and the debate commission they jointly established.

Nationally televised debates should be more than just a showcase for the two candidates most likely to win the election. They should be a broad discussion of the problems facing our country, as well as possible solutions– including proposals that may not yet be in mainstream circulation.

If we can’t have that kind of full discussion every four years at election time, when will we?

This commentary—written by the five panelists on Fox News Channel‘s weekly program News Watch—also appeared in the Washington Times.