COLUMNS

Exclusive debates a disservice to voters

Staff Writer
Chillicothe Times-Bulletin

Shame on Democratic and Republican power brokers for closing presidential debates to others – and shame on the press for ignoring that.

The debates are the best chance most Americans get to see candidates for the White House, not just commercials underwritten by corporate patrons, but the Commission on Presidential Debates continues to flex its muscular monopoly and limit what voters see – even more than the safe, horse-race approach mainstream media use.

Illinois will host an alternative presidential debate this week, when four other presidential contenders will face off in an Oct. 23 debate organized by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation at the Chicago Hilton, where longtime cable-TV host Larry King will moderate a day after the last Obama-Romney smackdown.

The best two candidates from Tuesday’s alternative event will debate a week later from Washington, D.C. Both FEEF debates will be available online.

This is timely not just because of the Oct. 23 and 30 alternatives, plus the embarrassing lack of substance, the exaggeration and the theatrics by Romney and Obama, but because Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein and running mate Cheri Honkala were arrested outside last week’s debate at New York’s Hofstra University, where police forcibly prevented them from entering the CPD debate, then shackled her for hours – news ignored by dominant media.

“We are here to bring the courage of those excluded from our politics to this mock debate, this mockery of democracy,” said Stein, whose name will appear on 85 percent of U.S. ballots, technically enough to be elected. The federal government also approved Stein’s campaign for matching funds.

I briefly met Stein, a 62-year-old Massachusetts physician, when she visited Western Illinois University’s mock presidential convention in Macomb last year, when she won 27 percent of the vote, an impressive number behind Obama’s 39 percent and Romney’s 33 percent. But all candidates participating in Tuesday’s event are worth checking out – and certainly worth including in debates, which CPD hasn’t.

The others are: the Justice Party’s Rocky Anderson, 61, a former two-term mayor of Salt Lake City who’s progressive on environmental, human rights and foreign-policy issues; the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode, Jr., 65, a former Virginia Congressman who’s a staunch social conservative; and Libertarians’ Gary Johnson, 59, the former Republican Governor of New Mexico who participated in two Republican primary free-for-alls. “Gov. Romney says that we should balance the federal budget but we should hold Medicare intact and we should increase spending for the military,” Johnson’s said, adding: “It’s not possible!”

For her part, Stein, as the Greens’ 2002 nominee for Massachusetts’ governor, debated Romney several times, with some observers declaring her the winner.

Apart from these specific candidates, presidential debates should be changed to forums ensuring that U.S. campaigns inform and involve the millions of citizens who watch.

Further, opening up the debates also could compel all candidates to present their ideas and beliefs instead of less-relevant dramatics or even falsehoods.

For example, Anderson has campaigned on resisting the power of insurance and pharmaceutical corporations, Wall Street and what GOP President Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Goode once suggested denying U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison his seat because he’s a Muslim, an interesting take on the separation of church and state. Johnson and Stein agree on “legalizing marijuana, getting out of our endless wars, reducing the police state [and] the PATRIOT Act,” Johnson said, but disagree on economic policy.

“The previous debates between President Obama and Gov. Romney have failed to address the issues that really concern everyday Americans,” said FEEF founder Christina Tobin. “From foreign policy, to the economy, to taboo subjects like our diminishing civil liberties and the drug war, Americans deserve a real debate, real solutions, and real electoral options.”

The supposedly nonpartisan CPD is actually bipartisan, formed in 1987 by the Republican and Democratic Parties. The last time a non-Dem or GOP candidate was invited to participate in a presidential debate was in 1992, when independent Ross Perot joined George Bush and Bill Clinton. Implying that permitting more voices could confuse voters, its criteria limit debate participants to those who are constitutionally eligible to be president, are on the ballot in enough states to theoretically win an Electoral College majority, and show support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by pollsters.

That last measure is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: Candidates not debating (or not covered by the press) are barely noticed, so they don’t reach potential supporters, holding down their percentages. Republicans and Democrats don’t want other candidates to affect tallies. That’s why the Romney campaign tried to keep Goode off Virginia’s ballot. (After gaining ballot access, Goode told the New York Times, “They’re afraid true conservatives will vote for me.”)

What’s lost? Information, interest and choice.

 The Anderson, Goode, Johnson, Stein debate will be online at http://freeandequal.org/live/.

— Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; columns archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com