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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Third Parties Give Voters a Place to Go

The Commission on Presidential Debates! Sounds like an official agency of or appointed by the government. It is neither. The Commission is an arm of the Republican and Democratic Parties through and through from its co-chairmen (former heads of their respective Parties) on down.

The commission is funded by corporations (Philip Morris, Ford, R.J. Reynolds, for example), and some foundations. This year, its purpose was to exclude all Third Party candidates, including Ross Perot, and present Bill Clinton and Bob Dole to the unquestioning national television networks. Four years ago, with Perot allowed into the debates, over 80 million people watched.

Bob Dole, a frequent guest on television news shows, said that this is the biggest audience he will have ever spoken before in his entire political career. It is the superbowl of audiences and, as such, very important for Presidential candidates, who are on all or many state ballots, to be able to access.

So, it was no small matter that the DemRep debate commission excluded everybody but Clinton and Dole for the paltry two Presidential debates that these candidates came to terms over in their collaborative confabs. Imagine, our country has more television communications channels than ever and the Presidential political season has to find tiny slivers of 90 minutes of debate twice to fit within the schedules of entertainment and advertisements.

Perot, of course, took his challenge to the legitimacy of the

debate commission to federal court in Washington, D.C. Though he heard some sympathetic comments from the Judge, Thomas F. Hogan, he lost the case. Judge Hogan ruled that the courts have neither the authority to determine who should participate in the debates nor did Mr. Perot have a First Amendment right to so participate.

The judge’s reasoning rested on the fact that the commission was private political business, not a government agency which would have raised the 1st amendment matter significantly, and it was financed with private money. Furthermore, the debates would be communicated to the American people by private television networks, albeit by using the public airwaves which are legally owned by the public.

This exclusive privatization of Presidential debates was challenged by Perot’s attorney, Jamie Raskin, who argued that under the Federal Election Commission, a real government agency, organizations sponsoring such debates had to use “objective criteria” regarding who is chosen if it is going to accept contributions from corporations. Having “a realistic chance of winning in November”, Raskin declared, was not objective nor were several other criteria used for excluding Third Party candidates.

Over sixty percent of the American people would like to see a major Third Party emerge in our country, whether or not they would vote for it. Many voters find tweedledee–tweedledum politics of the DemReps tedious and downright sleazy. These two major parties cannot even entice half of the eligible voters to go to the polls. Many people believe their vote doesn’t count and is nullified by big money in campaigns.

Historically, Third Parties have reinvigorated one or both of the major parties over the past 135 years. They do this, in spite of a “winner take all” election system, and high barriers to getting on the ballot that the two Parties have pushed through legislatures.

What happens is that by broadening the agenda, Third Parties (like the Progressive Party led by organized farmers around the turn of the century) compelled the major parties to either broaden their commitments or face losing voters.

Third Parties give voters a “place to go” when they do not like the major party candidates. The corporate Democrats today move both to the right and to the corporate powers because they believe that millions of Americans who don’t like them have “no place to go,” other than to stay home voteless or vote for someone even worse.

The narrowing choice between the ‘bad and the worse’, with every four years both getting worse, invites the challenge of new party candidates. Don’t the American people deserve more competition in electoral contests, and more strengthening of our democracy as a result, so that the choice becomes between the ‘good and the better?’