One other feature hasn’t changed, but maybe it should. That’s the cast of participants, restricted with only one exception to the Republican and Democratic nominees. Only in 1992, when the two parties’ campaigns suggested H. Ross Perot’s inclusion — a masterstroke by one side and a fatal miscalculation by the other — was the stage widened to permit a third player.
The 2020 general election campaign should be the next time. A commission that has stiff-armed pleas to admit a third candidate and fought off lawsuits challenging its refusals ought to take the idea seriously this time around. Circumstances have changed; the two-only policy should reflect that and change with them.
I was a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates during the 2016 cycle. Critics’ suspicions that the CPD is motivated solely by bipartisan protectionism were not supported by my experience. I observed only civic-minded people trying to serve the public interest as they understood it.
The core of the commission’s commitment to its major-party restriction is the conviction that the debates should be limited to those with a chance to win. That view was convincing, or at least arguable, for the presidential elections of the commission’s first three decades, but it is ripe for reevaluation today.
Since its emergence in the republic’s earliest years, the two-party system has served the nation well. A look at the travails of Italy, Israel or even Britain today should be enough to deter those tempted by a fragmented, multiparty alternative.
The principal contribution of two-party domination has been the incentive each has felt to reach for the center. In their policies, their selection of candidates and in those candidates’ presentations in broad forums such as the presidential debates, success generally depended on persuading — or at least not driving away — voters in a wide middle. But, as we all know, that was then.
In 1988, the first CPD election, nearly one-third of Congress voted at least 20 percent of the time with the other party. Now, the degree of overlap is in the single digits. A nomination process that no one designed, or would have, tends to produce nominees who cater to the fringes. Researchers find an “exhausted majority” leery of the extremism and weary of the harshness of the two parties as they exist today. An unprecedented 4 in 10 voters decline to identify with one of the two parties.
For years, another civic-spirited American has been appealing for greater access to the commission stage. Peter Ackerman has invested millions of his own funds appealing to and ultimately suing the commission, without success. As far as one can tell, his cause is as selfless as one sees in public life: He seeks no office, supports no candidate or third party, is currying no access or favor from anyone. He simply believes that the national dialogue needs improvement.
The commission employs a complex qualification test utilizing selected public opinion polls, which so far no third candidate has passed, and Perot would not have met if it had been in effect in 1992. Ackerman’s prescription, involving a national petition process, is awkward; quite possibly a better means could be devised. This time around, the CPD should attempt one.
However valid in the past, the “only someone who can win” argument is less than ideal in a time of radical polarization, with the pandering to extremes and the cheapened discourse it brings. A third voice on the stage, even one with no realistic chance of capturing 270 electoral votes, could in this troubled era raise issues the Big Two are ducking (the pending collapse of the social safety net, the national debt tsunami, etc.). He or she might model a bit of the civility and respect for the nation’s highest office that earlier aspirants, whatever their differences, once took for granted.
In his quest, Ackerman attacks the “Catch-22” nature of the commission’s position: Only a potential winner will be allowed to debate, but only a debate participant has a chance to win. A candidate who made it to the debate stage and performed very well could, especially in today’s instant-communications world, vault to genuine contender status. Stranger things have happened. Recently.
In virtually every economic and social realm, we are a world away from 1987. That’s obviously true of national politics, too. While there is plenty of time to fashion a better way, it would behoove the good people of the commission to reexamine their rigid attitude that three’s a crowd.