News & Politics

It's the Debates, Stupid

In response to arbitrary rules that may keep him out of the presidential debates, Ralph Nader is brainstorming some unusual ways to spread his message that may turn politics on its head.
At the Green Party convention in Denver in late June, keynote speaker Jim Hightower shouted to the crowd that Ralph Nader's candidacy was "hotter than high school love." Considering the attention that Nader has received from the media since the convention -- along with winning key endorsements from the influential California Nurses' Association and a good deal of attention from the Teamsters and the United Autoworkers -- Nader could be on his way to making high school love blush.

One of the smoldering issues in Nader's campaign is his fight to be included in the nationally televised presidential debates. With his remarkable grasp of facts and history, Nader is a formidable debater who's eager to do battle with Bush and Gore. But the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the custodian of the debates, has decreed that to participate, a candidate must have at least 15 percent support in 6 specific polls. Nader is already polling between 7 and 10 percent in California, and close to that in several other states, but getting to a full 15 percent in the next few months may prove impossible. In light of this, many observers feel that the CPD -- which is controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties -- has unfairly stacked the deck against political insurgents.

At a recent speech in Oakland, CA, Nader got one of the biggest roars of the evening when he confronted the debate issue head on. "The only poll taken shows that more than 50 percent of the people want both me and Buchanan in the debates," Nader revealed. "The debates shouldn't be based on how many people might vote for you, but how many people want you in the debates." The crowd instinctively understood a fundamental rule of American politics -- unless you are a self-funded billionaire, you simply don't have the money for paid advertising. Instead, you are dependent on free media appearances to get your message out. And the grand slam of free media is the national debates, scheduled for October.

The major parties know that if Nader can get into the debates next to Bush and Gore, his popularity will skyrocket. As Nader told AlterNet in an informal interview, "Gore is supposed to be this great debater, but in the infamous NAFTA debate he took on Perot, a little guy who didn't know how to debate. Now he's got George W. Bush, another lightweight. If we want to have a real heavyweight debate, let him debate me. But he won't."

The Nader threat is so potent that it moved the New York Times to a pre-emptive attack in an editorial on June 30 -- more than four months before the election. The Times, perhaps out of touch with the country, used the "classic spoiler" argument, claiming that candidates Bush and Gore are different enough that voters shouldn't support Nader nor should he be in the debates because he threatens to take votes away from Gore.

What inspired the Times to make such an anti-democratic statement? Why not have an open forum and not treat the voters like imbeciles? Might voters want to hear what other candidates like Nader and Reform Party Candidate Pat Buchanan have to say before deciding whom to vote for in November? And might not Ralph Nader be just the person who can air out the political system and inspire a national dialogue about the future direction of the country?

What if Coke and Pepsi Controlled the Supermarket Shelves?

Curiously, the 15 percent threshold set by the CPD is an arbitrary one, with no basis in tradition or law. Commenting on the rule, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura is reported to have quipped, "That's like Coke and Pepsi saying that you need 15 percent of the market in order to get your cola on the supermarket shelf."

Ventura should know. He was only polling at 10 percent when he was allowed into the Minnesota gubernatorial debates in 1998. By the time the election rolled around, he had captured a plurality and a win. No debates, no Ventura victory.

A similar phenomenon happened back in 1980, when the League of Women Voters, who ran the presidential debates then, allowed in third party candidate John Anderson. Although Anderson eventually lost the race, he finished with 7 percent of the popular vote.

But the League of Women Voters was pushed aside in 1987 by the CPD, which established the 15 percent threshold. It's hard to know where they got that figure. It's a whole lot higher than the only statutory figure -- the 5 percent threshold that will qualify a candidate's party for federal campaign funding in the next election.

In fact, there is a movement building to convince the debate Commission (co-chaired by former Democratic and Republican party leaders Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf) to lower the threshold to 5 percent. The progressive long-distance phone company Working Assets is telling its customers and constituency that the Commission has set up rules that unfairly restrict the public's right to be informed and undermine our nation's democratic principles. Already the Seattle Times and The Christian Science Monitor have editorialized in favor of including Nader in the debates.

Fahrenkopf argues that the CPD has logic on its side in sticking to 15 percent. In a recent Salon article by Jake Tapper, Fahrenkopf was quoted as saying, "There are 216 individuals who have filed their candidacies for president. The question is: Does the candidate have a realistic chance of being elected?"

So what about the Jesse Ventura situation? Salon quoted Paul Kirk somewhat confusingly addressing that issue: "It's a matter of entertainment vs. the serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States? Otherwise you get into 'Wouldn't it be fun to have X, Y, Z?'" But isn't that precisely the point -- that Ventura started out as entertainment but was elected because of his role in the debates?

Voter interest provides another big reason for including Nader. Limiting the debates to two major party candidates seems to guarantee a major drop-off in the public's involvement. The media-watch 'zine Extra! reported that the 1992 presidential debates, which included Ross Perot alongside Bill Clinton and President George Bush, "were watched by an average of more than 90 million viewers. Furthermore, the audience for each debate grew progressively larger -- from a viewership of 85 million for the first event to an impressive 97 million for the final broadcast." By contrast, the 1996 debates, which featured only Clinton and Bob Dole, attracted "an average of fewer than 42 million households -- with the second debate drawing a far smaller audience (36 million) than the first (46 million)." Inviting Nader to participate could inject some badly needed enthusiasm into the election -- maybe even bolstering voter participation in November.

Alternative Campaign Strategies

In light of the CPD's rules, the Nader camp is brainstorming alternative ways to create debate-like situations. As Nader told AlterNet, "We shouldn't get trapped in the cul de sac of the two party controlled debates. There are other options."

One strategy is the legal route. Joined by Susan Sarandon and Phil Donahue, Nader has filed a lawsuit with the Federal Election Commission, claiming that corporate financing of the debates amounts to an illegal campaign contribution. His suit asks the courts to void the FCC regulations that permit corporations like Anheuser Busch to spend millions of dollars staging the debates. Winning the suit won't get Nader into the October debates, but it would eliminate the corporate sponsors. Of course, the parties can no doubt lean on wealthy individuals to pay for the debates if they need to.

So Nader is considering other options. He may appeal to media entities like CNN to hold candidates' nights. He's also hoping that major membership groups, like Hispanic organizations in Southern California, might ask the candidates to come and appear before them. If such a group asked for a debate, "It may be a request [Bush and Gore] can't refuse."

Meanwhile, membership organizations of conservatives and liberals could co-sponsor debates. "Remember," Nader said, "Buchanan is going to get some votes in this race. He has $12.6 million dollars to spend."

Finally, Nader is getting his message out on the news show circuit. He has appeared on Meet the Press and is scheduled for the Jim Lehrer News Hour and a one-on-one with Tom Brokaw. And he's not shy to embrace the celebrity factor. He smiles broadly when he tells smaller fund-raising audiences that Warren Beatty sent him a $2000 check and Paul Newman held a fund-raiser for him at his New York City apartment.

The Nader Critics

In spite of his recent surge, Democrats and Gore supporters aren't going to let Nader rise without a fight. Ken Sunshine, a New York media consultant who advises democratic candidates, and Denis Rivera, the fiery leader of New York City health care workers, have suggested that Nader is overrated and irrelevant. "Talk to somebody who is poor or someone in a labor union and tell them there is no difference between Bush and Gore," said Sunshine. "There are 50 relevant issues that Gore would be much better on than Bush -- obviously the Supreme Court, and how about appointments to the National Labor Relations Board? Nader's the candidate of the cynical. The job of progressives is not to spoil, but to organize to hold Gore's feet to the fire. Progressives did a bad job of that with Clinton."

The issue hot on many swing voter's minds is the Supreme Court. They fear that Bush's Court appointees (of which there will be at least two) will lean far to the right, tipping the balance from a moderate court to a conservative one. The generally progressive Web magazine TomPaine.com landed on the anti-Nader side because of this issue. It published an article by Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy, who wrote that "a turnover of only one or two seats could have major repercussions across a wide range of areas including abortion rights, affirmative action, and the place of religion in public life."

The populist radio host Jim Hightower has responded to these concerns by saying, "But who will Gore appoint to the Supreme Court? Bryer and Ginsburg are very conservative on economic issues. Right now the best member of the Court is Souter. Who appointed him?" Funny -- it was George Dubya's daddy.

There are some dissenting opinions to the left of Nader as well. Katha Pollitt, writing in the Nation, criticized Nader's half-baked run four years ago. "Running an anti-NAFTA, pro-environment campaign that resolutely avoided mention of racism, welfare reform, affirmative action, civil liberties, reproductive rights, public education ... or other long time progressive concerns, Nader wound up with less than 1 percent of the vote."

Today that list of concerns comes tumbling out in Nader's stump speech. He focuses fundamentally on the numbing pain of poverty in a country of great wealth and the role unfettered corporations are playing in increasing the gap between rich and poor. Its the stuff populist dreams are made of ... but is anyone out there listening?

Reaching 15 Percent

How could the 15 percent happen? The public are already disenchanted with their choices. Rasmussen Research has found that only 21 percent of American voters say that the government reflects the will of the people, while 53 percent feel that it doesn't. A recent poll asked voters to imagine a hypothetical congressional race in which a third party candidate had a legitimate chance to win. Twenty-eight percent said they would vote for the Democrat, 27 percent picked the third party and 26 percent the Republican.

In fact, many people who might not vote for Nader in November may still want him included in the debates. Harriet Barlow, a key organizer in the Barry Commoner Citizen's Party candidacy in 1980, notes that "people have absolutely nothing to lose by supporting Ralph now and giving him money. We will benefit from his voice being heard. What people do on Election Day is a personal decision."

In light of this confluence of factors, if the Nader campaign makes getting into the debates a central goal, it isn't hard to imagine the following scenario:

July 2000: Al Gore continues to flounder under the shadow of the 1996 fund-raising scandal, and the public grows increasingly weary of hearing sordid tales of the money chase. Key elements of the labor movement remain disenchanted with his trade positions. His campaign can't seem to catch fire.

George W. Bush continues to lead Gore in the polls, but his frat-boy persona wears thin as stories of gaffes on the campaign trail and ignorance of key issues create a growing credibility gap. Rumors of Bush's cocaine use in his earlier years keep surfacing.

As the party conventions approach, the "Teamsters and Turtles," who joined forces so effectively during the Seattle demonstrations, are working together again to get global trade issues heard. Bush and Gore's free trade positions make them look like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

The Teamsters and the UAW want to play hardball. Their thinking: If we can get Nader into the debate, Gore will have to move left. If he moves left then we've got a chance of mobilizing the rank and file, who have no confidence in Gore and will either vote Nader or stay home. Let's use him to leverage Gore and if Gore doesn't move, then the hell with him.

The media is already treating Nader to some extent as the Perot of 2000, injecting spark into an otherwise dreary campaign. After all, they need fresh stories to tell in the 24 hour-a-day tabloidized news system, and Nader brings celebrity value and brand recognition. Nader's media presence becomes palpable.

August 2000: As word of Nader's surge filters out, people get excited -- lots of people. As third-party expert Micha Sifry once wrote in The Nation, "Nader's message cuts across the simple labels of left and right, capable of reaching conservative home schoolers anxious about rampant commercialism, small businesspeople angry about special privileges for big corporations, unionists upset about jobs disappearing overseas and anybody who knows somebody whose life was saved by an air bag. He retains a strong following among seniors who have followed his whole career and still draws respectable showings at his campus speaking gigs."

Volunteers are pouring into the campaign. Nader's longstanding ties to campus groups are leading many young people into the political process. During the Democratic and Republican national conventions, Nader emerges as the star of the Shadow Conventions, an antidote to politics-as-usual organized by pundit and TV personality Arianna Huffington. Meanwhile, thousands of Americans fighting globalization and sweatshops throw their weight behind the Nader effort: "Let's get Ralph on TV for the debates. He's the one who can talk truth to power."

September 2000: As students return to campuses, a full-scale grassroots movement emerges. The message is simple: Make democracy work. Let Nader into the debates. People are encouraged to tell pollsters "I'm for Nader," even if they aren't sure who they'll vote for in November. They recognize that if they support him now, they'll have a chance to hear all the candidates. Nader begins polling over 15 percent in a number of key states.

A horse race begins: Will Nader get his 15 percent? As the story mushrooms, the media begin running exposes on the biases and subjectivity of the polling business. The credibility of the 15 percent number -- with its plus or minus 4 or 5 percent error factor -- is under attack. A growing number of newspaper editorials call for Nader's participation in the debates. Polls show the public overwhelmingly in favor of including him.

In the face of wide mobilization, polls hovering near 15 percent, and the fear of significant voter alienation (when voter turnout is already at an all-time low) the CPD relents and opens the debates to Nader.

October 2000: After Nader gets into the debates, anything could happen. Maybe there's a stunning Ventura scenario, where Nader's debate appearances earn him a tiny plurality. Maybe Gore moves left to re-capture Democratic defectors. Maybe there's just a very close race, in which Gore and Bush take most of the states that form their natural base, but Nader takes California and a couple of other states -- say, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont, where his support is already strong. In such a scenario, neither Gore nor Bush receive the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Presidency, and for the first time since 1876, the House of Representatives must decide the election.

Crazy? Maybe, but who would have imagined the World Wrestling Federation as finishing school for a governor?
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