The two-party system forever! Perot denied: Federal commission bars Reform candidate from Clinton-Dole debates.

September 18, 1996

ROSS PEROT, the strongest third-force alternative to the entrenched two-party system, has been denied an opportunity to debate Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole by the bipartisan (not tripartisan) Commission on Presidential Debates. And why? Because the opinion polls, those wildly swinging weather vanes of voter sentiment, proclaim that the Texas billionaire is wallowing deep down in single digits.

Shades of the Literary Digest poll of 1936 that confidently predicted Alfred M. Landon's victory over Franklin D. Roosevelt! Or the 1948 unanimity among all the pollsters that Thomas E. Dewey was a shoo-in over Harry S. Truman!

Ah, but opinion sampling techniques in this computer age are supposed to be far more scientific, far more exact. Which supposedly explains why just this week one poll was giving Mr. Clinton a 17-point lead and another had Mr. Dole shaving the margin to 8 percent.

Predictably, underdog Dole is delighted and front-runner Clinton dismayed with this decision. Had their positions been reversed, so would have been their reaction. For the two major parties are not talking about principle; they are talking about tactics.

If principle were being honored, the commission would have taken due note that Mr. Perot got 19 percent of the vote in 1992 -- the biggest third-force showing since Bull Moose Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. It would have cited the extraordinary volatility of voter sentiment in a year that has seen the Democratic incumbent recover from a shaky beginning and the Republicans in free fall after their stunning victory in the 1994 congressional elections. It would have recognized that Mr. Perot's following could grow if he is given national exposure, as was the case in the last presidential election.

This is not just about principle; it is also about opening the presidential debates to important issues the two major candidates would prefer to ignore. This newspaper opposes Mr. Perot's protectionism and economic nationalism but defends his right to make his case. In contrast, we support his demand that the true dimensions of the long-range financial threat to Social Security and Medicare be faced squarely. Messrs. Clinton and Dole won't do it.

Mr. Perot's Reform Party is planning to file suit to overturn the commission, which has reserved an option to change its mind if the Texan suddenly rises in the polls. The commission has logic standing on its head. The far better solution would be to kick off with a three-man debate, see if Mr. Perot rebounds and then, if he is still faltering, move to a two-party format.

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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