After a long day campaigning as the presidential candidate of the Citizens' Party, I was interviewed in Albuquerque, N.M., by a television reporter. "Dr. Commoner," he said, "are you a serious candidate or are you just running on the issues?" My incredulous stare was enough to raise a flush of embarrassment on the reporter's cheeks, as he did an almost visible mental doubletake. If the League of Women Voters were to do the same, it would realize that its criteria for participation in the 1980 presidential debates are as insubstantial as that television reporter's distorted notion of "seriousness."
In a letter soliciting financial support for the debates, the League begins with a list of the serious problems facing the country -- inflation, unemployment, nuclear war and nuclear power, among others -- and then goes on to plead the case of millions of "concerned," "thinking," "knowledgeable Americans," not apathetic but "soured on the political process" and tired of "choosing the lesser evil." Unfortunately for us all, the letter -- and the League -- make no connection between these problems and the inability of major-party candidates to deal with them.
Despite its historic mission of broadening the political participation of an informed electorate, the League has yet to address our nation's underlying political discontent. In the League's words, in order to participate in the debates, a non-major-party candidate must "be able to demonstrate a significant measure of nationwide support and interest," as determined by a 15 percent rating in the national polls. In the words of Peter Hart [op-ed, Aug. 22], "the use of survey research to determine who should participate in the 1980 presidential debates is a perfect example of misuse of the tool of survey research."
The criterion's popularity with the two major-party candidates seems to vary with their perception of which of them will be hurt more by Anderson's participation. Thus, the serious problems facing the nation became subordinated to statistics and personal ambition.
As those who are familiar with the various states' laws governing access to the ballot well know, attaining ballot status in sufficient states to have a chance of winning 269 electoral votes demonstrates no mean amount of "national support and interest." I know I run the risk of sounding self-serving in accepting Jimmy Carter's "mathematical possibility of winning" criterion, for the Citizens' Party will meet that test; but I should point out that this standard will also include Anderson, Ed Clark of the Libertarian Party (whom I have already debated in the first presidential debate of the campaign), and possibly one or two others.
The initial, and most visible, lightning rod for the despair of disillusioned voters has, of course, been John Anderson. His visibility is a result of the national press attention given him as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. But his campaign seems no more willing to confront the economic crises of our time than do the campaigns of Carter and Reagan. His effort is a one-way street to nowhere. The only justification for an alternative candidacy this year is one that builds a vehicle that is capable of an ongoing contribution to the national debate through the '80s.
That's why we formed the Citizens' Party in 1979. That's why the Republican Party was formed in 1854; that's why the American, Libertarian, Socialist, Progressive parties -- to name a few -- were formed. When major parties avoid debating the crucial issues, new parties form to fill that vital gap in our national politics. When the gap is wide enough, as it was in 1854 over the question of slavery, and is today over the question of corporate control of America, a new party can grow to become a majority party.
A new party demonstrates clearly its dedication, support and resolve by gaining a mathematical chance of receiving a majority in the Electoral College. A criterion based on this achievement does not place a new party in the vicious circle of having to win a standing in the polls prior to the debates, even though it is though the debates that candidates hope to present their views to the public and thereby win support. Had Anderson been denied a spot in the Iowa debates because of his low standing in the polls, who today would know him outside of his own congressional district?
The solution to the League's dilemma has a rather elegant simplicity. Instead of making odds on the "seriousness" of candidates, the League should retain its original focus on the serious problems facing America, and the need to encourage open discussion of solutions to those problems. A series of debates should be structured on the issues that must be resolved during the coming decade, issues that in the League's judgment deserve serious attention from the American voter. All candidates who have achieved a position on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning should be invited to present and defend their positions on these issues. If any candidate refuses to participate, the American voter can draw his or her own conclusion regarding the "seriousness" of that candidate.
The refusal of major candidates to face the issues is the political disease the League identified in its fund-raising letter. In fact, the situation is far more serious. Of the 75 million Americans who became eligible to vote since 1960, 50 million have never bothered to register. These citizens have not abandoned politics; politicians have abandoned them by abandoning the issues. Structuring the debates around the issues would give the League a chance to help cure this disease in the body politic.