Debating the Debates

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Libertarian Gary Johnson Keeps Fighting to Join the Presidential Debates (truthdig.com)
Can Gary Johnson And Jill Stein Crash The Debates? (huffingtonpost.com)
Fact check: Trump misfires on debate claim (USA Today)

Although the first televised presidential debate in American history in 1960 is famed for how it shaped voters’ perceptions of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t followed by another televised debate in 1964, or 1968, or even 1972. The second presidential election to feature a televised debate didn’t take place until 1976, and in 1980 the debate schedule was so disrupted over Jimmy Carter protesting the inclusion of independent candidate John B. Anderson that there wasn’t a proper debate between Carter and Ronald Reagan until just before the election (and then Carter turned in the worst debate performance of the television era, handing Reagan his landslide on a silver platter).

Since 1980 the presidential debates have seemed like a fairly seamless affair from the outside, but there was one huge change in how the debates were run that took place in the 1980s that continues to shape how the debates are run today. The League of Women Voters had been the sponsor of the televised presidential debates since 1976, but before the 1988 debate they withdrew their support due to collusion between the camps of presidential candidates George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis about debate specifics. The Republican and Democratic parties then set up an organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates, which often incorrectly gets called a “nonpartisan” group because too many people think “nonpartisan” means the same thing as “bipartisan.” The commission was put together by the two biggest political parties in the country, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it works to serve their mutual interests.

When H. Ross Perot shocked the political establishment with his independent bid for the presidency in 1992 — at one point polling above both Bush 41 and Bill Clinton — it was all but impossible to deny Perot a spot in that year’s debates. Despite the problems that sank Perot’s candidacy (dropping out of the race only to re-enter it in October, his runningmate giving the worst performance in televised vice presidential debate history), Perot still managed to get close to 19% of the popular vote that year. When he ran again in 1996, though, he wasn’t allowed in the debates between Clinton and Bob Dole, and he finished that election with less than 9% of the popular vote.

It’s too simplistic to pin Perot’s drop in the 1996 election on his exclusion from the debates — especially when Republicans and Democrats had done so much in the previous four years to work on Perot’s signature issue, bringing the federal budget into balance — but the Commission on Presidential Debates has never allowed anyone but a Democrat or a Republican to take the debate stage since 1992. Their insistence on a candidate being able to consistently poll at 15% nationally has shut out all kinds of insurgent campaigns, starting with Ralph Nader in 2000 and continuing to this day. Gary Johnson has been able to break double digits recently, but he’s yet to cross that 15% threshold as we get closer and closer to debate season.

The Libertarian, Green and Constitution parties have all challenged the rules set by the Commission on Presidential Debates in recent years, but they haven’t had much luck due to their lack of standing. The Commission on Presidential Debates, much like the Democratic and Republican parties themselves, is often incorrectly assumed to be some sort of government entity. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are both private groups, as is the Commission on Presidential Debates, and as such they’re free to set their own rules when it comes to how they conduct their internal business. There’s an argument to be made that the service they provide matters so much to the public welfare that it really shouldn’t be left in the control of partisan political groups (and it’s an argument that I agree with), but under normal circumstances I wouldn’t expect the debates to open up to more political parties this year.

This is far from a normal election, though, and watching all the insanity that’s emerged since the major party political conventions, it’s becoming harder to envision that the debate schedule set up by the Commission on Presidential Debates will go off without a hitch; if the debates happen then they’re bound to look a lot more different than what we’re used to seeing, but I’m not sure that they’ll happen at all at this point. When you look at the major party presidential candidates, each of them has a good reason to want to avoid the debates, but they also have good reasons to allow Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in, which will make this interregnum between the conventions and the debates all the more interesting to watch.

If Hillary Clinton continues to hold a massive lead in national polls (and don’t count on that, because if my decades of watching politics has taught me anything, it’s that Democrats have an uncanny ability to ruin a sure thing), then she has a very clear incentive to skip the debates, since debates have historically hurt whoever comes into them with a clear lead (due to higher expectations for the frontrunner and similar considerations). At the same time, though, the extemporaneous speaking style that seemed to serve the Republican candidate so well during the primaries is clearly backfiring on him now (to the point where even legitimate bad news for Hillary Clinton is being all but lost in the wave of negative publicity for the Republican Party), and if he gets angry during the debate then it’s possible that a four-way debate featuring Johnson and Stein would end with the Republican candidate being seen as finishing in fourth place, which would all but seal an electoral college win for Clinton (and cause even more long-term damage to the Republican Party).

For the Republican candidate, skipping the debates (which he seems to be foreshadowing with his recent complaints about their scheduling) might be a good idea now, because it was during those weeks after Clinton’s email scandal took their toll on her poll numbers, when he stayed on message and gave mostly scripted speeches, that he took leads in a number of swing states that have all but disappeared this past week. Sticking with more controlled environments is definitely in his best interests right now. At the same time, though, Clinton is far from a perfect candidate, and having multiple voices on stage speak up against Clinton would give his own attacks more legitimacy. (He’s getting attacked from all sides already, so he has less to fear there than Clinton does.) On top of that, championing more open debates will add fuel to his “the system is rigged” rhetoric that he’s been ratcheting up on in recent days, so just campaigning to add Johnson and Stein to the debates (even if they don’t ultimately get spots on stage) serves him strategically right now with both his core base and the sick-of-bad-government independents he’ll need to get on his side if he’s to win in November.

Ultimately I don’t expect that either the Libertarian or Green candidates will get on stage this year; even with clear majorities of Americans disliking both of the major party candidates, as well as believing that we need a third major party (if not more), it’s hard to see even that level of public support overcoming the entrenched interests of the two major parties and this debate commission that they’ve set up. Both Johnson and Stein are poised to have breakout years for their respective parties, though, and they might be able to chip away at the power structures in Washington enough that we might see more than two candidates on stage in 2020. At this point, though, seeing four of them this year, or even not having any debates at all, wouldn’t be surprising. The only thing that would surprise me at this point is more than a handful of Americans being really happy the day after Election Day this year.

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