This was to be the year of the third party. After all, we're not at war (at least nobody's fighting back). There's no national crisis requiring "unity." Meanwhile, public support for Bill Clinton and Bob Dole is thin. Third parties were the only hope for livening things up.
Up pops a menacing commission, headed by past chairmen of the two major parties with an "independent" advisory board dominated by Harvard academics. This almighty commission, answerable to no one, says Ross Perot and all other third-party candidates have no place in the presidential debates.
Yet Perot is on the ballot in all 50 states. He qualified for federal matching funds. He garnered 19% of the vote in 1992 and still stands a mathematical chance of winning. A majority of voters want him in the debates.
But the commission says he doesn't have a "reasonable" chance to win the election, so he's out. Some people say Dole doesn't have a "reasonable" chance either. Maybe Clinton should debate himself.
Excluded as well is the Libertarian Party, also on the ballot in 50 states. Its candidate is best-selling author Harry Browne. He's sensible, articulate and has a loyal following. He too has qualified for federal matching funds, but refused them as "stolen money."
Many young voters are inclined toward libertarian views. They like Dole's proposed tax cut, but doubt he's serious. They want to scrap Social Security, cool it on the drug war and bring the troops home.
These voters can blow it out their ears, says the omniscient commission. The American people cannot be allowed to compare Browne's ideas with conventional political thought. Great men like Bill and Bob should not have to lower themselves to debate nobodies.
Then there are the environmentalists, a massive social movement that's influenced policy for decades. Frustrated by Clinton's compromises, they are looking around. Glory be, Ralph Nader has thrown his hat into the ring with the Green Party. At last, a real choice.
Too bad for them. Clinton is as Green as anyone is allowed to be. Nader may rank among the most intelligent and articulate men in public life, but democracy isn't a free-for-all, you know.
The truth is that all three minor candidates have something important to say. A majority of people want them to say it. More people would watch if the debates included five candidates instead of two guys we're all sick of anyway. I thought we were supposed to worry about voter apathy.
These outside challengers, though politically diverse, offer surprisingly similar critiques of the present political system. They say we live under a government dominated by big-money special interests. They urge a rethinking of the military-industrial complex, middle-class welfare, corporate welfare and international trade treaties. For example, unlike the two major candidates, none of them liked NAFTA or GATT or approved of the Mexican bailout.
In short, all of them urge precisely what the establishment fears the most: a fundamental rethinking of the present direction of national politics. By excluding their opinions, is their critique confirmed or denied?
If our economy were dominated by two massive firms, the feds would bust them up. When it happens in politics, party big shots appoint a commission to give it a stamp of approval. And they have the chutzpah to call it "an unvarnished debate format."
During the Cold War, the New Left used to talk about the illusion of democracy. We had two sides we could vote for, but no real choice. The debates were an echo chamber for the power elite. The game was rigged from start to finish. Is anyone prepared to dispute that view today?
Alternative candidates keep (or make) the leading candidates honest. We have competition in our economic system. We need the same in our political system.
For my part, I've lost interest in what the elites are calling a "race." Voters fed up with opinion gridlock should vote for the third party of their choice, and show this pretentious commission that America isn't yet the banana republic they want it to be.