The reviews are in, and the latest U.S. presidential debate, the "town hall" from Nashville, Tenn., was a snore. One problem is that in a debate it is important for the debaters to actually disagree. Yet Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain substantively agree on many issues. That is one major reason that the debates should be open, and that major third-party or independent candidates should be included.
Take the global financial meltdown. Both senators voted for the controversial bailout bill that first failed in the U.S. House of Representatives. It passed resoundingly in the Senate and, larded with financial favors to woo uncooperative House members, finally passed the House. The news each day suggests that the bailout hasn't solved the problem. Rather, the economic contagion is going global, with European and Asian banks teetering on the brink of collapse. Iceland-not just its banks, but the country-faces financial ruin.
Earlier Tuesday, before the debate, the U.S. Federal Reserve announced that it would for the first time ever begin buying up the debt of private companies to help them meet short-term cash needs for things like payroll. Shortly after the debate ended, major central banks around the world, again for the first time ever, cut their prime lending rates in unison. Yet on the debate floor, there was no sense that the global financial system needed more than a tax cut here, a voucher there. The major thing lacking from the debate was, well, debate.
Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate, reacted to the debate, writing: "Sen. McCain, Sen. Barack Obama and the other members of Congress who have supported one bailout after another have turned fiscal responsibility into a sucker's game. ... There's no meaningful difference between the two major parties." The independent campaign of Ralph Nader put out a debate-watching e-mail, asking supporters to listen for key words and phrases, among them: "working class," "Taft-Hartley Act," "labor unions," "military-industrial complex," "single-payer health care," "impeachment," "carbon tax" and "corporate power." None of these was mentioned.
Obama supporters noted that McCain did not mention "middle class" once. Yet neither candidate mentioned poverty.
Obama and McCain fought to prove who was more sympathetic to the nuclear-power industry. They each bowed to the coal industry, with its controversial "clean coal" gambit. They split hairs over who would more cagily bomb Pakistan.
At the core of the problem with U.S. presidential debates is that they are run by a private corporation, the Commission on Presidential Debates, founded in 1987 by the Republican and Democratic parties. The CPD took over the debate process from the League of Women Voters. Just once since then has a third-party candidate made it into the debate -- Ross Perot in 1992. After he did well, he was excluded in 1996. The CPD requires contenders to poll at 15 percent before they qualify for any debate.
Nader calls the 15 percent threshold "a Catch-22 level of support that is almost impossible for any third-party candidate to reach without first getting in the debates."
George Farah directs Open Debates, a group that works "to ensure that the presidential debates serve the American people first." He told me that "historically, it has been third parties, not the major parties, that have supported and are responsible for the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, public schools, public power, unemployment compensation, minimum wage, child labor laws. The list goes on and on. The two parties fail to address a particular issue; a third party rises up, and it's supported by tens of millions of Americans, forcing the Republican and Democratic parties to co-opt that issue, or the third party rises and succeeds, which is why the Republican Party jumped from being a third party to being a major party of the United States of America."
There is a move to organize a third-party debate, in New York City, a day or so after the final McCain-Obama debate on Oct. 15. The CPD could still liven its last debate, and serve the electorate and history, by opening up that debate to all candidates who have at least obtained significant ballot access. Both Ralph Nader and Bob Barr are on the ballot in close to 45 states, Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party is on the ballot in 30 states, and Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin is on in more than 35 states. Let's open the debates and have a vigorous and honest discussion about where this country needs to go. It will not only make for better television, it will make for better democracy.