by Joseph P. Tartaro
I heard some interesting comments about the presidential debate process right after the vice presidential debate on Oct. 5.
One was a suggestion phoned in to CSPAN in which a caller reflected a common view: that the two vice presidential candidates, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman, appeared more presidential than their respective principals. The caller thought that perhaps the voters should have the option of choosing among all four for presidentwith the top two voter-getters in a runoff for the presidency. That may sound strange, but at one time the president and vice president were the top two candidates, regardless of party; they did not run as a team in the early days of our nation.
The other idea came from Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne, one of three third party candidates who appeared on CNNs Talk Back Live the day after the debate.
All third party and independent candidates have been excluded from the debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) which, like the Federal Election Commission, is controlled only by Democrats and Republicans. The CPD has written the rules so that anyone other than the candidates of the two major partiesor an extremely rich person like Ross Perotis shut out of the debates by a Catch 22 rule. In order to be included in the debates the CPD sanctions, the candidates must have a popularity in the polls of at least 15%. Needless to say, without mass media exposure or access to debate forums, no one but a major party candidate is going to qualify.
Brownes proposal was that the CPD should stage a number of debates beginning in August, with the first debates in that month being open to all candidates who are on the ballot in a majority of states. In September, the commissions debates could exclude anyone who doesnt show at least 5% in the polls. Finally, Browne suggested, the commission could limit the October debates to people who dont poll at least 10% or more.
It sounded fair to me, because then the minor party candidates would get a chance to get their points before a national pool of voters. (Nowhere near everyone would watch presidential debates in August, but there might be enough of a novelty that many would.)
A lot of peopleand some states by lawdont like any third party candidates on principleeven when they see little real difference between the Democrat and Republican Party candidates and platforms. They believe that minor party candidates are a nuisance and distraction, and are nothing but spoilers at best.
But third party candidates open the democratic process to its full potential.
In many ways they express the full spectrum of public opinion on key issues of the day, or at least a wider view than the two major parties. The third party candidates know they cant win, but they are committed to bringing fresh insights to our public policy debates. Third party candidates offer different opinions and policy options to the voting public. For example, the public might get to hear the pros and cons of the right to self-defense and concealed carry because of a third party candidate who isnt as worried about pleasing the media.
Of course, because of registration dominance in certain districts or states by one of the two major parties, the voters often are offered no choice at all. This is especially true in many congressional races, where the incumbent candidate of one major party is so well knownbecause of many successful reelection campaigns, is so entrenched and supported by a dominant segment of the voters, or has so much campaign money that the other party cannot find a candidate willing to give the voters even a remote choice. There are many congressional districts in this country where the incumbent runs totally unopposed.
Sometimes the other major party can find people who are courageous and committed enough to make what amounts to a suicide run at the congressional seat. Occasionally, other candidates appear in the dominant partys primary. At other times, those opposition candidates can only get on the ballot as minor party candidates.
Thats the case in the Massachusetts race for the US Senate this year. The most viable candidate running against seven-term incumbent Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy is Carla Howell, the Libertarian candidate. The Republicans seldom put up a serious challenger against Kennedy and this year there was some question if there would even be a token GOP candidate. Either way, however, the likelihood of a serious difference between Kennedy and any Republican candidate in Massachusetts is remote, especially on the self-defense and gun rights issues. In this case, Howell provides a choice on the Libertarian ticket.
Many voters in New Yorks US Senate race may have a hard time pulling the lever for either the Republican, Rep. Rick Lazio, or the Democrat, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Enough Democrats and Republicans are disenchanted that Clinton faced a challenge in the September Democratic primary from a Manhattan physician. In November, both she and Lazio face a third party challenger in the case of Louis Wein, candidate of the Constitution Party/.
This is a classic very close race where a third party candidate could possibly siphon enough votes from Lazio to put Clinton in the Senate. Lazios chief credential for a victory is that he is not Hillary Rodham Clinton, someone who is running with about the highest negatives in recent history. Wein does not get exposure in the televised debates, nor does he have the money to run TV ads in what will prove to be the most expensive Senate race anywhere in the country. But he has a right to run and offers a different choice. His candidacy is not a lark; it costs him in time, money and peer approval. But elections are about two things: a choice on the issues and a choice in the candidates. Unfortunately, in many races every year, there is little difference between the candidates of the major parties.
In Illinois, Stephanie Sailor, the Chicago coordinator for the Second Amendment Sisters, is running for Congress in the 4th District. The reasons for the run are simple. The incumbent, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, is a Democrat who is running for his fifth term. There is no Republican candidate running against him. Sailor is his only opponent and, running as the endorsed Libertarian candidate, provides the only safety valve for people who want to vote against Gutierrez. Sailor is under no illusions about a possible victory, but like others with her political courage, she is hoping to articulate freedom issues such as guns and self-defense for the voters.
Not all of the sacrificial candidates run on minor party lines. In Californias 33rd congressional District, Wayne Miller, a long time advocate of the right to keep and bear arms as well as other civil liberties, is running as the Republican Partys candidate against four-term Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard. Roybal-Allard is one of the Los Angeles areas better known anti-gunners and is seeking a fifth term in a district that makes her defeat very unlikely. But Miller is campaigning hard, and his wife, Gladys, is a GOP candidate for the state Assembly.
Am I recommending that people vote for third party candidates as a Quixotic gesture toward principle? Absolutely not.
People should find out as much as possible about the candidates in every race and vote for the candidate that seems to offer the best chance of representing their interests and beliefs if elected. And money or party affiliation should not be the yardstick to measure candidates.
In Georgia, a great defender of the whole Bill of Rights, three-term Republican Rep. Bob Barr, is facing a tough re-election campaign from rich Democrat, Roger Kahn, who spent millions in the primaries alone to win his partys nomination. The 7th District race is not one where money or party affiliation should triumph over principles. Barr is a classic example of how a candidate supercedes the party. If liberal Democrats, who love the First and Fourth Amendment more than the Second vote against Barr, because he is a Republican, they will be voting against one of their greatest champions of the whole Bill of Rights. Barr is a lawmaker that the ACLU reaches out to as much as the NRA.
In Michigans 16th District, Republicans who care about the whole Bill of Rights face a similar dilemma if they vote against Democrat John Dingell in his bid for a 24th term. Dingell is another to whom both the right and left turn for equity in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Candidates and issues are more important than party labels.
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