The first week of October, when the general election is in full swing, a few million Americans will take a load off, sit down in the La-Z-Boy with a bowl of popcorn and watch the presidential candidates try to tear the stuffing out of each other.
But which candidates? If all goes according to plan, only the likely Democratic and Republican nominees, Al Gore and George W. Bush will face each other. That leaves out newly minted Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, two men who would probably crawl across broken glass for the chance to trade barbs with the big boys.
``Let's have a robust debate,'' Nader said in a recent interview. ``People are going to fall asleep watching the drab debate the dreary.''
While he's right that a four-way slugfest will be a lot more invigorating than a two-way matchup, that's not likely to happen. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll stacked the race at Bush, 43 percent; Gore, 38 percent; Nader, 7 percent; and Buchanan, 4 percent. Under current rules, only candidates who get 15 percent in five national polls will go head-to-head in three critical October forums. Says who? Says the Commission on Presidential Debates. And what is that? A nonpartisan commission -- make that bipartisan, says Nader -- led by the former heads of the Democratic and Republican national committees.
Nader has filed suit, charging that that corporate contributions to the commission are illegal donations to the two parties. Certainly, the debates provide media airtime no candidate could buy, though the millions of dollars in soft money advertising are an expensive substitute.
Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, can't comment on Nader's suit directly but points out that the commission has always made a candidate's viability the key issue. For example, billionaire Ross Perot scored a place in the debates in 1992 because of his double-digit poll numbers.
``With the support that Perot had garnered, and his access to funds and media buys, it was arguable that he had a chance of winning the elections,'' Brown says. Not so in 1996, when Perot's poll numbers dropped and the commission kicked him to curb.
Among the key issues here are what creates high poll numbers to begin with? And second, is viability the only measure of whether a candidate should be in the debates? John Scardino, media director for the debate commission, says that ``it's up to the candidates and their parties to raise their profile with the American public'' by late September, the point at which the commission measures five national polls to determine who's in and who's out.
But polls are often a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the candidates aren't seen as viable, they don't get covered by the media. If they don't get covered by the media, most voters don't know they exist and don't rank them in polls. If the candidates don't rank in the polls, then they can't enter the debates. If they can't debate, they don't get votes. And the cycle continues.
If you use viability as the only measure of whether a candidate should be included in the debates, then Nader and Buchanan might as well pack up and go home. But having third-party candidates in the mix could actually raise the caliber of the debate and motivate nonvoting citizens, especially young Americans.
Still angry over China trade, some labor leaders are calling for wider presidential debates, as well. ``The two major parties have shut Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan out of the process, refusing to give them a voice before the American public,'' said Teamster president James P. Hoffa, who met with Nader recently.
Sure, the traditional debates will focus attention on the subtle differences between the major party candidates. Dubya supports the death penalty and lives in a state that makes regular headlines for executions. The Veep supports the death penalty, too. Dubya supports free trade with China. The veep supports free trade with China and making nice with the unions who hate him for pushing Permanent Normal Trade Relations, or PNTR. Oh, real differences? They have those, too. And they'll come out in the debates, but not as sharply as if they were juxtaposed against the views of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, two men who, respectively, support universal health care and oppose child-care subsidies.
If handled properly, including third-party candidates in the debate will not prevent the major candidates from airing their ideas in depth. In fact, it could do quite the opposite, keeping them from lapsing into vagaries and doublespeak.
Chideya is a New York journalist.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press