Restrict debates to major parties

September 11, 2000|By Solomon I. Omo-Osagie II

BECAUSE THE OFFICE of president is the most important, powerful and influential in the world, those seeking it must demonstrate their understanding of its significance and its global preeminence, not just their popularity.

Third-party candidates are not seeking to become the next president. As they have said repeatedly, "they are seeking to give voice to the forgotten Americans" and to "return the government to the people."

Third-party candidates can best make their points and accomplish the foregoing either in the House or Senate.

One of the recurring themes these candidates focus on is extending opportunities to the less privileged and most marginalized. They can work in Congress to push for legislation to advance the plights of their constituents. To skip this prospect and expect to improve the lot of the poor through the presidency is unrealistic.

Historically, our presidents have had some experience with bipartisan abilities to bring the far right and left to a middle ground. The recent slate of third-party candidates seeking to be included in the presidential debates is a far cry from bipartisan cooperation, which is so critical in legislating and governing.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., has a point when he argues that Ralph Nader should be included in debates because it helps our democracy to hear different ideas. But history shows that no third-party candidate has ever won the presidency in the past 150 years of organized political party politics.

Mr. Nader, of the Green Party, represents an important constituency to which both major political parties should pay attention, and including him in the debates would simply highlight those issues that he advocates.

But these issues alone would not win him the presidency. The country is still not assured about his positions on defense, trade, fiscal policies, affirmative action or abortion, among others. He would provide a lively addition to the debates. But he will not win.

Rather, Mr. Nader's advocacy style would be most felt in the Senate, where he would have all day to debate his ideas about helping Americans. His voice and those of the other candidates needs to be heard. But inclusion in the debates, with their time restraints, would not do his important views much good.

Fortunately, the Constitution provides a more tedious mechanism of electing our president. The Electoral College is such that none of the third-party candidates can win the 270 electoral votes required in capturing the presidency.

In addition, the Commission on Presidential Debates' guidelines for inclusion in the debate is clearly a major test of third-party candidates' viability. The only constitutional criteria met by all of the candidates to be eligible for president is that they be 35 years old.

None has met the other two important criteria -- ballot access in enough states to present a mathematical probability of capturing the number of electoral votes required to win and receiving at least 15 percent of popular support in five acceptable national polls.

None of the polls shows the Reform, Green, "Alternative Reform" or Libertarian parties in this percentage range.

The most important contribution that third party candidates can make to our political process is to win seats in the legislative branch, where they can alter and influence national policies and priorities. There, they can push for a legislative agenda that focuses on economic and political empowerment of their core constituents.

These presidential debates should be between the two major parties with a realistic chance of winning the election in November.

Solomon I. Omo-Osagie II teaches political science and history at Baltimore City Community College.

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