Almost unbeknownst to the citizens of this great republic, our election process is being bent in opposite directions by legal and institutional forces oblivious to each other -- and to the damage they are doing to the workings of our democracy.
One set of players -- Congress, the courts and regulatory agencies -- has opened the presidential campaign to massive and hugely expensive intervention by groups outside the two-party system. The airwaves are filled with ads and the battleground states are crawling with workers financed by independent groups at least nominally uncontrolled by the Republican or Democratic parties or the George Bush and John Kerry campaigns.
At the same time, the presidential debates that are probably the single most important part of the contest have been negotiated privately by the two major candidates' personal representatives and are being presented by an organization representing the two major parties -- and only those parties.
It is not difficult to make a case for either of these arrangements. But the juxtaposition defies logic and can distort the overall campaign process.
Much has been said -- here and in other commentary -- about the enlarged role in this election being played by non-party groups, the so-called 527 and 501c organizations that were created as vehicles for unlimited large donations of "soft money," which the McCain-Feingold law said the two major parties could no longer accept. Millions of dollars have flowed into these new channels, and the impact of their ads and voter mobilization efforts is significant.
Some regard this as a dangerous loophole in the law and argue for restricting these outside players. But in a free society, there is a principled argument for protecting individuals' right to express their views on candidates and issues at the time the nation is choosing its leaders -- rather than requiring that all spending be controlled by the office seekers or parties themselves.
When it comes to the debates, recent practice (since 1988) has given the sponsorship to the private, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, formed by the two major parties and headed by former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic national committees. The commission has been successful in institutionalizing the debates, which were only intermittently scheduled and too often allowed to lapse when they were in the hands of the television networks or the League of Women Voters.
For that the country can be grateful. But controversy has grown over the commission's ground rules, which tend to restrict participation to the Republican and Democratic nominees. The exclusion of Ross Perot in 1996 and of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in 2000 was the subject of protest and litigation, but the commission stuck to its guns. This year, once again, it is only Bush and Kerry who received the coveted invitations for 4 1/2 hours of prime-time discourse on all the TV networks.
It is perfectly sensible to assert, as the commission does, that voters are most interested in seeing direct interaction between the two candidates who actually have a realistic prospect of winning the election, rather than cluttering the screen with a bunch of also-rans.
But if the law allows (and in some ways encourages) both donors and grass-roots activists to go outside the two-party system to participate in the campaign, then what is the logic of restricting the debates to those who have passed through the major-party primaries and conventions?
It would be better to recognize the special and valuable role of the major parties -- as we do by subsidizing their general election campaigns with taxpayer funds and by ensuring that their nominees get to debate -- but at the same time to leave the door open for outsider participation, both in debates and in independent campaign spending and activity.
The way to do this is to nudge the TV networks to carry one more presidential debate -- open to all those candidates who have qualified for ballot position in a majority of states. Scheduled early in the autumn, such a debate could provide valuable exposure this year for Nader, Green Party candidate David Cobb, Libertarian Michael Badnarik and Constitution Party candidate Michael Peroutka. Major-party nominees could be invited to join them if they wished.
Should any of the minor-party candidates strike a chord -- as Perot did when allowed into the 1992 debate or as Jesse Ventura did in Minnesota in 1998 -- the public reaction, as measured by polls, would be enough to qualify him for the later debates with the major-party nominees.
It is possible to preserve the advantages of the two-party system and still have an open democracy. It ought to happen in 2008.