There wasn't a lot to talk about in the news this week. It was mostly just more of the same on Iraq, duelling war records, and duelling Democratic candidates. And I am gay-marriaged-out for the time being. Thankfully, the departure of Dean last week (yay!) seemed to lead to Ralph Nader's announcement that he is, once again, running for President.
I don't even have a lot of thoughts about Nader in particular. I hate listening to him, and disagree with his politics (those are orthogonal for me). I don't anticipate he will get many votes, and if he does, more power to him; I don't care much about that, though of course I am glad he'll take more votes away from the Democratic candidate than the Republican.
I really don't think it will make a difference this time around, and I am unconvinced it made a difference last time around. People assumed the votes Nader got would have gone to Gore, though it's clear that some of the voters would have note voted, and others would have voted instead for other third-party candidates, and we have no idea where those numbers break down.
But I don't really care either way; it's how the system works, and I didn't cry about it when Bush lost "because of" Perot, and I didn't begrudge Perot when he "took votes from" Dole (though Dole wouldn't have won anyway, in my opinion).
So I don't have strong feelings about Nader being in the race; but with his entrance, my thoughts turn toward one of quadrennial annoyances: the undemocratic Commission on Presidential Debates. This nonprofit, "nonpartisan" (read: "bipartisan") organization has "sponsored" (read: "controlled") all general election debates since 1988.
It is co-chaired by a Republican and a Democrat (hence, "bipartisan"). It has no legal authority whatsoever to perform its powers, but the two major parties (again, "bipartisan") agree to only participate in debates they "sponsor," and they only "sponsor" debates where the candidates fit their rules (hence, "controlled").
There are three criteria they establish. The first is that the candidates meet the legal requirements for being the President. That's perfectly reasonable.
The second is that the candidate must be on enough state ballots to have a mathematical possibility of winning enough electoral votes to win the Presidency. While theoretically it is possible for someone to win the Presidency without meeting this criteria, I believe -- as most people would, I imagine -- that this, too, is reasonable.
The third is that the candidate must have at least 15% of the vote, as determined by the average of the most recently published results of five national polls. For those of you with your jaw hanging open right now: no, I am not kidding.
Here's the essential information you should allow to sink in:
The two major political parties are in collusion with each other to exclude third-party candidates from public exposure, and they use poll data -- which is unreliable and imperfect, not subject to any public scrutiny, and subject to change -- to determine which candidates the public will have access to in debates, a clearly important part of the democratic process.
The CPD kept Nader out of the debates the last time, and I, for one, would prefer that it didn't happen again. Since Nader is running as an independent, it's possible he won't even meet the second criteria anyway, let alone the third. But if he does, he should be allowed in the debates.
Now, some of you are probably thinking I just want Nader in the debates so he will pull votes away from Kerry (OK, "or Edwards"), to help the Republicans/hurt the Democrats. Nothing could be further from the truth: I blasted excluding third-party candidates from debates back in 1997 when Perot, who was poised to hurt Dole, was the one being excluded. This is not a partisan issue with me.
The issue for me is not that Nader might hurt the Democrats, but that the public is being denied access to information about candidates. In another piece I wrote back in 2000, I quoted the Democrat co-chair of the CPD, Paul Kirk, who admitted as much: "Our role is not to jump-start your campaign and all of a sudden make you competitive."
The arrogance behind Kirk's statement about jump-starting campaigns is astounding: if the people see Nader and like him enough to vote for him, how can this possibly be, in any way, a bad thing for democracy? That's the whole point of a general election debate.
The 2004 Iowa campaign becomes particularly instructive in this discussion: both John Edwards and John Kerry were at or below 15 percent in every poll I could find that was taken within a month before the first debate. And nationwide, they were even lower. It is most likely the case that one or both of them would have been excluded from the Iowa debates, if the CPD rules applied; instead, they finished the top two in that state, and one of them will win the party's nomination.
Yes, a primary race is different than the general election race, but the principle is the same: going in you don't know who you like best, and the debate gives everyone a chance to find out. By refusing access, you are refusing citizens the opportunity to make up their own minds.
You can make all the arguments you want about how you don't like third parties or our election process but none of that matters to this point: people are running for President under the law and the two major parties are colluding to prevent us from getting access to them.
Why am I bringing this up now, when the debates are so far away (they likely won't happen until September at the earliest)? Because if we don't talk about it until later, it will be too late. Maybe some intrepid reporter can ask Kerry and Edwards what they think about the CPD, and whether they plan to participate only in CPD-controlled debates.
Maybe they could even be asked if they see a conflict of interest in the fact that the two parties agree to be in only CPD-controlled debates, and yet the CPD is controlled by the two parties, or asked if they would have supported a system which would have excluded them in the Iowa debates.
I can dream.