Saturday, March 31, 2007

Harm: Limiting Debate

Most people don't know it, but presidential debates are controlled by a commission that claims to be "non-partisan" but, in fact, is the brainchild of the former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties (Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, respectively).

The mission of this commission, according to its web site is the following: "The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners. Its primary purpose is to sponsor and produce debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan corporation, sponsored all the presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004."

If it weren't so serious a matter, that mission statement would be the best of jokes.

In 1992, Ross Perot single-handedly carried the issue that has dominated Washington politics since: the budget deficit. Then-candidate Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush ignored that issue during those periods when Perot was out of the race. And when he was in, Perot arguably "won" the debates.

But the CPD learned its lesson. As demonstrated by its exclusion of Perot in 1996 and Ralph Nader and others in subsequent elections, the CPD showed that it will never make the mistake again of including in the debates candidates not under their control.

I'm no Ross Perot fan. He often portrayed complex issues in oversimplified illustrations, and some say he demonstrated a true paranoid streak. But he should have been included in the presidential debates because he brought something to the table that the other candidates had to respond to, putting them on record on the issue.

The CPD applies "pre-established objective" criteria to determine who shall be extended invitations. According to the web site: "The goal of the CPD's debates is to afford the members of the public an opportunity to sharpen their views, in a focused debate format, of those candidates from among whom the next President and Vice President will be selected. The purpose of the (selection) criteria is to identify those candidates who have achieved a level of electoral support such that they realistically are considered to be among the principal rivals for the Presidency."

In other words, it's a horserace whose only purpose is to elect someone to the office. According to the CPD, the purpose of the campaign (which the debates are a part of) is:
  • not to bring a wide swath of issues of interest to the public or
  • not to inform the electorate of all potential solutions to public policy
  • but simply to offer the narrow ideologies of the two main candidates.

And who's to say that a non-party candidate, given the opportunity to air different and compelling views, may not achieve that "level of electoral support" required to win the office? It's called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Remember, before he briefly flaked out of the '92 race, Perot had reached levels of polling support above 40 percent.

The media has culpability in this mess too. New outlets have the duty to help inform the public, but they have bought into the horserace mentality. If a candidate is not considered "viable," they largely ignore him no matter the message, no matter the ideas, no matter the solutions. If you can't win (according to someone's calculation), what's the point of bothering the electorate with this superfluous information?

Well, ask Bill Clinton why he made deficit reduction a primary focus of his presidency. Because the outsider, Ross Perot, forced him to put on record his position on the issue.

In 1996, the Los Angeles Times editorialized that Perot should be included in the debates. But, note its reasoning: "In this campaign, as in 1992, Perot plans to spend millions on taped or carefully edited 'infomercials' that allow him to present, unchallenged, his views on the nation's woes and what he would do to cure them. If he does not participate in the debates, live questioning of Perot may be largely limited to appearances with television's Larry King and other deferential questioners."

So it was Perot's "unchallenged" views that required "live questioning"? What about the views of Clinton and Bob Dole? What about juxtaposing Perot's views against those of major party candidates? Or Nader's views ... or whoever ... ?

What are the media and the political establishment afraid of? The lame anecdotes abound about feeble, weird, abrasive, unattractive "lesser" candidates embarrassing themselves in public. Well, let them make fools of themselves. The process will suffer no injury.

Excluding those candidates, though, might well injure our nation because the precise crystalline answer to the most pressing problem of the day may fall from their lips. And nobody will have heard. So what if the electorate more than likely won't elect them. To coin a phrase, "It's the issues, stupid!"

If we are to be a real representative democracy, the trend must be toward including disparate voices. Remember, the concept of Social Security was co-opted by FDR from the Socialists. Adopting a golden nugget out of a quagmire of dysfunctional political philosophy is not faulty public policy. It does not mean the unattractive candidate with one good idea will be elected.

What it does mean is that one good idea will have a better chance of becoming public policy.

It has become painfully obvious that the Democrats and Republicans don't possess all of the answers to society's needs. In fact, their games-playing often and obviously gets in the way of the public's work. Is it any wonder why more and more citizens everyday are joining the growing numbers of unhappy voters moving to the Independent center?

Isn't our political system supposed to be a marketplace of ideas? Why exclude any candidates, any ideas? In the last century, we let more voters into the process.

Let them hear ... and then choose.

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