A decision on debates that further entrenches the two-party system

September 20, 1996|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Based strictly on the Commission on Presidential Debates' principal yardstick for participation, it's hard to argue against its exclusion of Reform Party candidate Ross Perot. He clearly does not have a ''realistic'' as opposed to a ''theoretical'' chance of being elected, as the commission stipulated to qualify.

There is also merit in deciding that there will be one-on-one debates between the two major-party nominees, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, so that voters can evaluate their differences without the distraction of Mr. Perot.

It's predictable now that Mr. Perot will keep whining that the debates will be ''undemocratic'' for having excluded him, which will be particularly laughable. Here's a guy who bought and paid for a party of his own and then stage-managed its nominating procedure to assure his own selection.

The argument that Mr. Perot was ''entitled'' to take part in this year's debates because he won 19 percent of the vote four years ago has been demolished by his dismal showing now in all the major polls, ranging from 4 percent to barely 10.

At the time of the 1992 debates, he at least had managed to inject into the public dialogue the important issues of federal deficits and budget-balancing. This time around, he has been little more than a carping crank scratching at the edges of the national debate.

The important practical affect of Mr. Perot's exclusion is the nTC possibility that it will enable Senator Dole to draw the bulk of anti-Clinton sentiment among voters, rather than have to split it. Also, keeping Mr. Perot out means that President Clinton will not have an ally in disputing the Republican's claim that he will balance the budget while also achieving a 15 percent tax cut. The race could tighten up somewhat as a result.

Why ask journalists?

Still, there is something disturbing about a selection process in which the commission members in recent days sounded out newspaper columnists, Washington bureau chiefs, broadcast luminaries and political scientists on whether Mr. Perot deserved to be included. What special knowledge do they have to play that role?

The commission had already established other criteria for participation that made sense in terms of encouraging development of third parties -- most of which Mr. Perot met. One was obtaining ballot position in enough states offering enough electoral votes to be elected. Another was evidence of an organization behind his candidacy. A third was widespread interest in or concern about his candidacy.

If the commission was going to lay out these yardsticks for participation in the debates, why did it feel it necessary to ask the elite strata of the news business and academia for their two cents? As a result of the decision against Mr. Perot, it is likely to be much harder four years from now to generate wide public interest in creating a third party. Maybe that was part of the consideration to exclude him.

In trying to institutionalize the presidential debates, the commission is also further institutionalizing the two-party system, even as more and more voters express their disfavor with politics as usual and yearn for an alternative to the Republican and Democratic parties. This decision against Mr. Perot sets back not only the billionaire from Texas, but also the quest for a third party.

A more immediate problem for the commission may be getting the two major-party nominees to accept the dates, numbers of debates and formats it has laid down. It remains a fact that if either candidate, and especially the one running ahead, refuses to debate, there will be none, or they will be held only on his terms.

But voters have come to want and expect presidential debates. When incumbent George Bush dragged his heels on debates in 1992, he paid the price of ridicule -- remember the chicken that showed up at his rallies? It's conceivable, but not likely, that President Clinton could use Mr. Perot's exclusion as a reason to balk. He is too good on his feet to pass up the chance to close the sale on his re-election by debating Mr. Dole.

The senator, trailing as he does, obviously would have agreed to debate Mr. Clinton with or without Mr. Perot. Now he has his chance at a clear shot at him, with the advantage of low expectations. He will have to make the most of it, now that the commission has given him a helping hand.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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