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Debates With Real Issues: The Minor Parties Excel

Neal Peirce / Oct 31 2012

For Release Sunday, Nov 4, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceShould America’s “disastrously failed” war on drugs come to an end?

Should radical action be taken to relieve America’s “young people with crushing record tuition debt?”

Or consider this: Should we “stop being the policeman of the world,” including the drone attacks that often go askew, “dropping bombs on weddings and funerals”?

And there’s campaign finance: Should the American people move to curb the “disastrous,” “corrupting” influence of big money on elections, including a constitutional amendment to “clarify that money is not speech, and corporations are not people?”

Agree or disagree with those recommendations, they clearly deserve full public debate.

So why weren’t they raised at any of this autumn’s official presidential debates, sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates?

The reason is simple. Formed in 1987 by Democrats and Republicans, the commission sets a ridiculously high threshold – 15 percent – that any minor candidate must achieve in national polls to be allowed on the nationally televised debate stage with the major party candidates.

Since then, only Ross Perot in 1992 has been able to participate. The system is clearly an exclusionary act the major parties want to keep in place. It lets their candidates stick with limited, constantly reiterated messages aimed at wavering viewers in electoral battleground states.

Moderators’ unwillingness to bring up new or uncomfortable issues makes the situation even worse. The only significant break in this year’s debates occurred at the Obama-Romney debate when a town hall attendee named Nina Gonzalez asked the candidates about their positions on gun control. (President Obama, in response, did mention his support for a ban on assault weapons; Mitt Romney said he opposes any new gun control laws.)

But that was a lonely exception. Limited to the top two parties, today’s debates miss a broad array of nationally significant issues that millions of us clearly care about.

By contrast, I discovered a cornucopia of targeted, relevant issues by checking the full (and quite colorful) transcript of the Oct. 23 debate in Chicago of four minor party candidates, moderated by Larry King and sponsored by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation. (Sadly, only RT, a relatively unknown television channel, broadcast the actual debate, and news reports provided only fragmentary coverage.)

The quotes atop this column all come from that debate, which included Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party, former governor of New Mexico), Jill Stein (Green Party), Rocky Anderson (Justice Party, former mayor of Salt Lake City), and Virgil Goode (Constitution Party, former U.S. House member).

Goode, the only avowed conservative in the group, broke with his fellow debaters on economic and social issues. But he echoed them, and to some degree Rep. Ron Paul in last spring’s Republican debates, in declaring:

“I support a strong defense, but we need to retrench, rather than trying to be the policeman of the world. … Our bases need to be reduced around the world.”

Said Johnson: “The operative word” should be “defense,” not “offense.” He argued for reducing military spending by 43 percent, to 2002 spending levels. Stein chimed in: “A foreign policy based on militarism and brute military force and wars for oil is making us less secure, not more secure.”

OK, the rest of us may say: “How do we then stop al-Qaida from blowing up U.S. targets?” The presidential election season should be highlighting – not suppressing – this debate.

The same is glaringly true of other issues surfaced at the Chicago debate but ignored by Obama and Romney. One example: Anderson’s assertion that “catastrophic” climate change could threaten the U.S. future more than terrorism. Isn’t it high time for a level-headed national conversation on that issue?

Or Johnson’s argument for a “federal consumption tax” applicable to all transactions, which he argues could replace personal and corporate income taxes, even let us abolish the IRS. Used successfully in Britain and other nations, it’s often called a “value added tax,” with a low rate, but applicable to all transactions. Would it, as Johnson argued, “reboot the American economy”? Shouldn’t the next president weigh in on the discussion?

Or what do all candidates think of ending the decades-old, clearly failed U.S. war on drugs? It’s time to legalize marijuana, tax it, stop arresting 1.8 million Americans a year on drug issues, Johnson asserted, adding: “Fifty percent of kids graduating from high school have smoked marijuana. That’s an issue that belongs with families, not the criminal justice system.”

And as hundreds of thousands of drug cases clog prisons, Anderson asserted that the chief executive should pardon every federal prison inmate being held on drug charges alone.

Ending corporate bailouts, taming the “industrial military complex” that President Eisenhower warned of, instituting Medicare-like health benefits for all Americans, a new Equal Rights Amendment for gender projection – the “minor” party candidates raised even more credible proposals on issues the “majors” ignored.

Maybe in 2016, we should invite them onto the big stage.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Great piece Neal.

    Rocky Anderson’s vision for the country, and his frank assessments of the state of the nation are fresh air, but without the possibility of election it is painful to not be able to support him—the risks of a Romney presidency are just too great. We both worked with Mitt during the Olympics and are all too familiar with his M.O. Rocky is angry with some of us that we aren’t actively supporting him, but we have to do everything possible to avoid a Romney presidency.

    My students are incensed that the major candidates don’t even speak about environment, climate change, the rise of our oceans, environmental racism, and a long list of other important problems. Our news media as you point out are largely to blame. The anger I see rising among the millennials is heating up. We need them to be angry.

  2. Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    What Stephen Goldsmith said….

  3. Darrell Marcy
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Nice comment. Yes, the Millennials should be getting angry. Maybe they can do something. My generation, Generation X (Obama’s too) has clearly failed.

  4. Dot Ridings
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Serious question: Neal, what criteria (beyond constitutional eligibility and being on enough state ballots to make an Electoral College win a possibility) would you suggest establishing for invitations to participate in debates, to avoid a “mass meeting” of candidates that would preclude any discussion beyond sound bites?

  5. Neal Peirce
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Dot Riding raises the right question — What criteria for minor party candidates to join the presidential debates, since an open door would create a chaotic scene? I’d start with a qualification figure like 5 percent in the national polls. But that’s also problematic. The extreme partisanship we’re now experiencing seems to drive people toward the major parties, so it’s hard for others to get a foothold. But at least some kind of dramatically lower threshold than today’s 15 percent in national polls needs to be set. Perhaps a lower target could empower minor party candidates in their search for support, and a chance to express divergent views and new issues.

  6. Craig Anthony Thomas
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    “Of the 20 nations surveyed outside the U.S., how many expressed majority support for U.S. drone attacks?”
    Choose one of the four possible correct answers:
    Zero | 5 | 10 | 15

    The question above is taken from 10 questions in the U.S. Global Image Quiz by Pew Research Center.

    You can take the quiz to test Neal’s hypothesis correct: U.S. media outlets fail to fully inform the public of critical policy issues. See:

    Footnote: I’m an unabashed news junkie and I am too embarrass to tell you my score.

    Spoiler alert: The correct answer to the question above is “zero.”

  7. Gary Braswell
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    While I typically disagree with the majority of your columns I continue to read them because there are always nuggets of good information. However, this column for the first time since I have been reading it for the last two plus years was the most even handed appeal to Americans of all political persuasions and left me for the first time agreeing with you on how to make necessary change. Continue advocating for open discussion and debate with all sides including what some might label extremes like you have here and I think there is a much greater chance we can come together and move mountains.

  8. Roy B. Scherer
    Posted November 4, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Peirce is absolutely right in this column.
    The “third” parties exist primarily to call attention to ideas which are largely ignored by the two old parties, and as such provide a much-needed perspective. It’s a great pity that, no matter what hoops they jump through, the “main-stream media”, and of course the old-parties-dominated debate commissions, studiously ignore them.
    If their viewpoints were adequately presented to the public, there would be far more support. As it is, much of the public is unaware that these perspectives even exist.
    I’m proud to say that I have already cast my vote for the only candidate who does not want to put Americans in jail because of what they consume or what they do in their bedrooms: Gary Johnson, Libertarian.
    See www.

  9. Mike Koetting
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    The flaws in the American process for picking presidents are so deep and so numerous, inviting third party candidates to the debates is like bringing a drawing of gun to a gun fight. The core of the problem is that the mainstream parties are mainstream precisely BECAUSE they have made a science out of avoiding serious issues. They will not be prodded into changing that formula because fringe parties call them on it. Why should they? Afterall, those parties are fringe parties. and the mainstream parties can buy the airwaves. Until the American people make goverance a serious issue for the mainstream parties, we are stuck in the cowpasture of our current campaigns.

  10. Bill Tirrill
    Posted November 13, 2012 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    The system is structured so as to discourage third parties. Stephen Goldsmith: The media are not to blame, nor are the two parties, but rather a voting system that penalizes voting for one’s first choice by taking that vote away from the more preferable viable candidate. By contrast, a ranked-choice ballot would allow, for example, a vote for Nader to pass over to Gore when Nader doesn’t make the cut. Third parties will never gain a foothold until we adopt a voting system that eliminates the “spoiler” effect.