Seattle Times
Editorials & Opinion
Sunday, June 4, 2000

Include four candidates in presidential debate

Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan will not be allowed into this year's presidential debates. They should be, for at least one debate.

The Commission on Presidential Debates said in January it would include only those candidates with at least 15 percent support in five national polls. Nader and Buchanan, at around 4 percent each, are shut out.

The commission, which is controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties, said it did not want to waste viewers' time on candidates with no chance of being elected. It is true that Nader and Buchanan have no chance to be elected. But each has support strong enough to demand wider access to their views.

Imagine a four-way debate: Nader attacking Gore for being too attached to the gasoline car, and Buchanan attacking Bush for being soft on affirmative action. Americans would watch a contest like that.

By themselves, today's Democratic and Republican parties don't have that kind of audience pull. Typically, their candidates fight over the votes in the middle. It's a good system. It promotes moderate outcomes, so that when the state changes hands, society is not turned upside down. But programmed moderation can leave festering issues undiscussed.

Consider economic globalization. Gore and Bush mainly agree on it. Nader and Buchanan don't. With them involved, Gore and Bush would have to defend themselves.

On foreign policy, Nader has proposed a 50 percent cut in military spending. Buchanan has proposed a pullout from Kosovo.

On taxes, Nader has proposed a punitive levy on pollution and on gas-guzzling cars and trucks. Buchanan would get rid of all income-tax rates but one: a 16 percent flat rate.

The history of serious third-party presidential candidacies shows that they never win. They can, however, affect the outcome. Small ideological parties, which typically pull less than 1 percent of the vote, have little influence. There are too many of them, and it's reasonable to exclude them from the debates.

But any party whose nominee shows up at 4 percent, or perhaps even 2 percent, should be included in the first round. In the second round, the threshold should go up to 8 or 10 percent. In the third round, the threshold should go up again, to 15 or 20 percent.

Such a plan would give a small party the chance of scoring a triumph in the first debate, popping up in the polls, scoring another triumph, and going on to win. It would be a long shot, but people would talk about it. It would add a note of excitement.

In the seven presidential elections in which we've had debates, in only one year, 1992, were there more than two candidates in any debate. That year, Ross Perot went into the debates with 5 to 6 percent support. He went on to win 19 percent of the vote.

The two parties didn't like that. That is why they excluded Perot in 1996 and it is the reason for their 15 percent threshold now. The 15 percent threshold suits the two parties. It unduly restricts the American people.

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