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When Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was barred from attending last week's presidential debate, even though he had a ticket, it seemed to symbolize his quixotic quest to gain attention on the national stage. The Commission on Presidential Debates, controlled by the two major parties, had issued orders that Nader not be allowed into the debate, his ticket notwithstanding. Nader, who was not allowed to participate in the debates by the commission, had no choice but to walk away.
Deciding who is a viable presidential candidate, and therefore who should be able to participate in a nationally televised debate, is not an easy choice. No one wants a crackpot candidate who has no chance of winning the general election to detract from the debate and waste the public's time. However, by the same token, any candidate who does not have the opportunity to participate in the debates has virtually no chance to win an upset victory in the election.
In the interests of democracy, it is clear that the Democrats and Republicans should not have a stranglehold on the debates (and therefore the election). Candidates should not be forced to conform to either of their platforms in order to have a chance in American politics. For all the differences that exist between Vice President Al Gore '69 and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, they think alike on many important issues: Both are pro-free trade, neither are isolationist and both favor more military spending.
It would be worthwhile to include a candidate in the debates who does have a significant national following and who challenges those positions. To that end, we'd like to propose a new format for presidential debates.
A nonpartisan commission should fix the location and number of debates for each election in advance, and it should not change from year to year. That would eliminate some of the ludicrous posturing that inevitably occurs between the participants over where and how many debates will occur.
Eligibility should be determined on a step-up basis. Say, for example, there are four presidential debates each year. For the first debate, the bar for participation should be set relatively low; perhaps five percent of registered voters in a national poll conducted by a respected polling organization. Then, for the next debate, the eligibility bar should rise: Support from 10 percent of the public would be required for participation. For the third debate and fourth debates, 15 percent would be the required minimum.
This system would ensure that third-party candidates have a fair shot to express their views to the general public. It puts the onus on them to prove that they have the wide base of support that they often claim. And if the Republican and Democratic candidates prove to be the only ones with significant national support, then they will be the only ones on the stage for the last two debates.
A nonpartisan system like this will revive the democratic spirit by giving third-party candidates a fair shot to enter the debates. They need not be turned away at the door any longer.
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