Keep debates democratic

July 28, 2000|By Theo Lippman Jr.

PAT Buchanan is taking legal actions to require the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to include him if, as expected, he becomes the Reform Party nominee. He says, "without the debates, there really is no chance, I believe, that the Reform Party can win the presidency."

That's true, but it is beside the point because there is also no chance -- NO chance -- that Mr. Buchanan or any Reform Party nominee can win the presidency by being in the debates.

Same thing with Ralph Nader, the nominee of the Green Party, who is also trying to force the CPD to let him join Al Gore and George Bush in the three planned presidential debates.

Excluding them is in no way a threat to or rebuke of democracy. It's the American way. This is a two-party nation.

Thirteen of the first 17 presidential elections from 1788 to 1852 were essentially two-party or one-party contests. In the eight of those elections after popular votes began to be tallied, in 1824, the two principal candidates' share of that vote ranged from 72 percent to 99 percent, averaging 93 percent.

In 1856, the new Republican Party first ran a candidate for president against a Democratic Party nominee. In the 36 presidential elections beginning that year and through 1996, those two parties have averaged 95 percent of the total presidential vote.

That's the popular vote. The two parties between them won 16,738 of the 17,202 electoral votes cast since 1856.

Almost a third of the total of those third (and fourth) party electoral votes were cast in 1860, when the nation, on the eve of secession and civil war, was falling apart in a never-before and never-since political crisis.

In this century's 25 presidential elections, the Democratic and Republican candidates got more than 80 percent of the vote in every election but one (1912, when former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate).

In no 20th century election except that one did a third party candidate get even 10 percent of the electoral vote.

Based on the historical record alone, the CPD would be justified in barring third party candidates just on the historical record. Two-party politics is as American as cherry pie.

Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Nader aren't really candidates in the traditional sense. They aren't officeholders or public-spirited private citizens with experience in leading or managing large entities, honestly seeking to become America's chief executive. They're extremist pamphleteers "running" for personal aggrandizement only. Their lecture fees and book royalties would be greatly enhanced if they got on the presidential debate stage.

They say they're running to advance important ideas and policies the major parties ignore and that they can't get before the public if they aren't treated as true candidates. Yeah, right.

Their ideas have been presented to the public by them just as thoroughly and for far longer than Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush have presented theirs.

And they and their ideas have consistently and overwhelmingly been rejected, directly and indirectly at the polls.

But the Commission on Presidential Debates, which knows all this, has nonetheless agreed to invite either of them, or any candidate, who merely meets the constitutional requirements (natural born resident, 14 years a resident of the United States, 35 years old), and who is a candidate on the ballots in states casting a majority of the electoral votes, and who receives an average of at least 15 percent support in five national polls.

That last stipulation is what Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan object to. They're getting only about 4 percent to 8 percent in opinion polls. Their objection is tailor-made to their own needs.

They would not be happy if the CPD's only requirement was legal candidacy or, say, 1 percent or 2 percent opinion poll support. That might allow in the presidential nominees of the Libertarian Party, Socialist Party, Grassroots Party, Social Workers Party, Natural Law Party, Constitutional and Independent American Party, U.S. Pacifist Party, Prohibition Party -- and the 87 independent candidates!

But those candidates have just as much chance of becoming president as Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan. Just like those 95 candidates, Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Nader are the political equivalent of a circus sideshow's bearded lady or alligator man.

How does it serve democracy to let any of them into the big top with the center ring's stars? I'd say it doesn't at all. I'd say it trivializes debates. I'd say it undermines democracy.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired editorial writer and editorial page columnist for The Sun.

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