The presidential debates this year were a disaster, especially the initial slugfest, which produced remarkably little substantive discussion, but also the fiasco of the second debate first switching formats, then being canceled when Donald Trump decided to skip it. While the problems were especially acute this year – and therefore, even more notable than usual – they were nothing new. The truth is that presidential debates have largely been a waste of time for years. They rarely feature substantive discussion, but instead focus on rehearsed talking points and one-liner responses. That’s the fault not just of the candidates, but also of the organizers themselves. It’s not an accident, either: Presidential debates aren’t designed to encourage an open discussion, but to help the Democrats and Republicans maintain their duopoly.

The presidential debates this year were organized, as always, by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit. They like to proclaim themselves to be nonpartisan, but that’s a bit of a misnomer; rather, they’re bipartisan. Their leadership and board members are made up of a mix of former elected officials (like former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe), media figures, academics and businessmen. What they don’t have, though, is any significant representation outside of the traditional Republican and Democratic parties, which is why over the years they’ve never deigned to invite third-party candidates (and just one independent).

The standard argument defending this is that this isn’t a big deal, since other candidates aren’t really viable. The Commission on Presidential Debates shouldn’t get to have such an influence on that decision, though; instead, it should be left more to the discretion of the voters themselves. While it would be nice to think that voters make that decision purely based on the merits of the individual candidates, unless they actively seek out third-party candidates, it’s hard for them to know they even exist, let alone what their positions are.

The current threshold for participating in the corporate-backed commission debates is that a candidate has to register 15 percent support in at least five major polls, but that’s a flawed and biased metric. The problem with the presidential debate commission choosing candidates based on polls is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Only the candidates polling well are allowed on the stage, so the lagging candidates never get the chance to make up ground. It’s a convenient trap for the major parties, since most third-party and independent candidates never register anywhere near 15 percent.

A more inclusive standard would be to allow any candidate on stage who is officially on the ballot in enough states to receive 270 electoral votes. This would allow a greater diversity on the stage, but not to the degree that it would pose organizational difficulties. During this cycle, it would allow for the presence of Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen and Green candidate Howie Hawkins. Neither of these are particularly close calls, either: Jorgensen is on the ballot in all 50 states, while Hawkins made it on in 30, enough for 381 electoral votes. This would have produced the same outcome in 2016, adding Green Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson to the mix. The resulting four-person debate, even during a pandemic, wouldn’t be much more of a challenge logistically. If Maine can handle a four-person debate, there’s no reason to think the rest of the country couldn’t as well.

The other advantage of having additional candidates onstage is that they could challenge the major-party candidates from their own ideological flanks, something we rarely see during the general election. A Green could challenge the Democrat on why he won’t support “Medicare for All” or the Green New Deal, while a Libertarian could more convincingly criticize the Republican for running up the deficit. That would illustrate to the entire country just how each party’s candidate panders to their base during a primary, then abandons those ideas when it becomes politically convenient to do so.

Sadly, the country is unlikely to see these types of more free-wheeling, open-ended debates as long as the Commission on Presidential Debates is running them. If the major parties truly believed in their ideological positions, they’d welcome the chance to debate third-party candidates. The fact that they work so hard to keep them off the stage shows that they know their success comes not from their ideas, but instead from their organizational and fundraising advantages. That’s a shame, because if we want a real marketplace of ideas in our democracy, we have to allow more than just two vendors.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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