Important Candidates' Voices ... But Will We Hear Them?

Ralph Nader announced his Green Party candidacy for President of the United States recently, potentially adding to the presidential race not only viewpoints but issues currently absent from most campaign coverage. Nader's name recognition and public service record could help him mount a real challenge to the bi-partisan lock on the presidency -- if Americans ever hear his views. Unfortunately, we probably will be denied the opportunity to hear Nader or any other candidate with serious challenges to the status quo in the most important events of the campaign, the presidential candidates' debates. The ultimate victim of the shutout is not Nader or other excluded candidates, but democracy itself.In 1987 Democrats and Republicans worked together to displace the League of Women Voters as the presenter of the debates, consolidating control over the process by creating the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The CPD, exclusive presenter of post-primary presidential debates since l988, calls itself non-partisan, but with only two parties represented, "bi-partisan" is the most generous label possible. This duopoly is a powerful barrier to political competition, just as a corporate duopoly thwarts healthy business competition. But the public debate duopoly has even more severe consequences.You would think a national commission which is effectively deciding which candidates we may hear would have democratic input, but the CPD is a private corporation with no public accountability or government oversight. In the last presidential election eight corporations and two foundations provided its operating funds, paying $25,000 to $250,000 each to sponsor debates. This year the price has gone up: Anheuser Busch Inc. alone is paying $550,000 for exclusive sponsorship of a debate in St. Louis.Can we have democracy when a narrow group sets the political agenda and citizens are relegated to choosing from such a reduced menu? Now is the time to ask, since the CPD's exclusive forums assuredly will diminish public participation in politics even further . New Hampshire's registered independent voters now outnumber Republicans or Democrats in that state, and the number of declared independents is growing nationwide -- strong evidence that voters are dissatisfied with their current lack of choice. The four leading major Democrat and Republican candidates closely align on too many matters, resulting in the omission of vital discussion that a third party candidate could stimulate.In January the CPD Inc. announced its participation criteria for this year's debates: candidates "who have achieved a level of electoral support such that they realistically are considered to be among the principal rivals for the Presidency." What this means: For the CPD, a candidate must posses the expected votes of 15 percent of the public in order to share a stage with the two dominant parties' candidates. That is three times the 5 percent of actual popular vote required for political parties to receive major party status and matching public funds.Also disturbing: The measure of popularity used is a sampling of several national polls that may not even list certain candidates. Jesse Ventura for instance received just 10 percent support in polls for Governor of Minnesota in September 1998 before he participated in five debates. Ventura won the gubernatorial election in November with 37 percent of the vote. No major poll ever identified Ventura as a front runner.In October 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot polled at just 7 percent. But that year more reasonable criteria for debate participation let us hear his views and Perot captured 19 percent of the vote; the inclusion of an alternative candidate helped boost voter participation by 12 million from the previous election. By l996 the CPD had raised the barriers to participation rendering Perot the most visible critic of NAFTA and the corporate laissez-faire agenda, "unelectable" by CPD's standards -- and thus excluded from the debates. Of course, by excluding a candidate, his or her "non-viability" is made a self-fulfilling definition.With over 60 potential presidential candidates this year, some threshold for participation and a limit to the number of debate participants are warranted, but they must be set to permit a wider spectrum of opinion than the current sliver. The CPD offers no justification for making the debate club so exclusive.Televised debates are the most influential candidate forum for most voters and a rare opportunity to hear ideas unedited and in context. To permit control of these crucial forums by corporate interests and the dominant parties is inherently undemocratic and a blatant conflict of interest.Even if some might defend the notion of limiting debates to the two leading candidates, surely a private corporation without accountability to citizens is not the entity to hold such power. The Commission on Presidential Debates must be replaced with a publicly accountable body that will encourage -- not dissuade -- participation in the debates and elections. At the same time, we should question how such an affront to democracy came to be in the first place. Milchen is the director of ReclaimDemocracy.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring democratic authority over corporations.

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