Nader: Open the Debates for Third Party Candidates Like Bob Barr, Cynthia McKinney and Me

The People Deserve to Hear Us: Voters should have better options than Democrats and Republicans.

Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush have their first debate in Boston at the University of Massachusetts. Moderator Jim Lehrer is seated in the foreground.
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The broadcasts of the presidential debates this year will reach 60 million or more Americans. The array of candidates running includes two former members of Congress—Libertarian Bob Barr and Green Cynthia McKinney—as well as me, but viewers will see only two choices: a Democrat and a Republican. The rest of us are not invited.

Few voters likely know that the debate sponsor, the Commission on Presidential Debates, was created in 1987 by the two parties. Don't be fooled by its claim that its goal is to provide "the best possible information to viewers and listeners." Its purpose is to give the parties cover when they bar other legitimate candidates from debating.

Ross Perot got in the debates in 1992 even though he was polling below 10 percent. Afterwards, the two parties retaliated, hiking up the threshold for entry to 15 percent, a Catch-22 level of support that is almost impossible for any third-party candidate to reach without first getting in the debates.

Walter Cronkite called the commission's debates an "unconscionable fraud." New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls them a "mockery." The League of Women Voters called them "campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity, and honest answers to tough questions." A genuinely nonpartisan, civic organization, the league used to sponsor the debates but quit in disgust in 1988, saying: "The league has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

In a 2004 Zogby poll, 57 percent of Americans said that third parties should be included in the debates. My campaign is on the ballot in 45 states and is polling at 6 percent nationally. I have earned a podium in the debates and have something to contribute to the political discussion.

The two parties want to marginalize our campaigns, but our views are not marginal. Most Americans want to end the Iraq war, want true single-payer healthcare, their pension rights upheld, their privacy protected, a living wage, strong enforcement against corporate crimes and frauds, and the Bush/Cheney administration held accountable for its serial violations of law. Obama and McCain refuse to support these positions. I support them all, and my inclusion would ensure the debates are more than an antidote for insomnia.

Others argue that including third-party candidates in debates would crowd the field, making it confusing for voters. They must have missed the first primary debates where eight to 10 people shared the stage.

A proposal. Given the huge barriers to getting on state ballots, a fair and manageable standard would be that anyone on enough ballots to have a theoretical chance to win should be allowed in the debates—six candidates this year. I challenge the two parties to take a baby step: In the coming weeks, a third-party debate is set to take place. Will McCain and Obama allow the winner, as voted by viewers, into their last debate?

The abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, Social Security, fair labor stand-ards, and protection of farmers were all first championed by third parties. The mainstream ultimately adopted these "marginal" issues, and we are better for it. The legacy of third-party candidates in American history is not that of "spoilers" but of visionaries.

Those who say that third parties cannot win are wrong. Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura won the 1998 Minnesota governor's race after appearing in the debates. "If you are allowed in the debates, the candidate that no one gives a chance to, lo and behold, can win," Ventura said. My running mate, Matt Gonzalez, polled at 6 percent before being included in the 2003 San Francisco mayoral debates. He ended up with 47 percent of the vote.

In 2002, an AP poll found that 1 in 3 people would consider voting for me if they thought I could win. The main obstacle to people voting for me, then, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Putting me on the same stage with the other candidates would turn this prophecy on its head.

Ralph Nader, a consumer advocate, lawyer, author, and founder of public-interest groups, is running for president.