By Nancy Smith
Who is the Commission on Presidential Debates to decide which presidential candidates the American people get to see in a televised debate? I ask you.
These are the folks who make all the rules for debates and have since 1987.
In case you don’t know much about it, the nonprofit, “nonpartisan,” 501(c)(3) corporation was established behind closed doors by the two majority parties.
So that makes the CPD nonpartisan only if you’re talking about Republicans and Democrats, whose interests it protects.
Any other party doesn’t get the time of day.
Another year, probably nobody notices. But in 2016, with both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates disliked at historic levels and a rising share of political independents frustrated with the two major parties, this is the year a third-party candidate like Libertarian Gary Johnson deserves a closer look.
Unfortunately, the not-so-nopartisan CPD isn’t flexible enough to break its rules. Even in the interest of liberty and true democracy.
When the Commission was organized in 1987, after the League of Women Voters complained of collusion between the Republican and Democratic parties and pulled out as an organizer, Frank Fahrenkopf, the Republican co-chair said the Commission would not likely include third party candidates. Paul Kirk, the Democratic co-chair at the time, was even stronger in his opinion that third-party candidates should be excluded.
So here we are today with the Commission’s etched-in-stone criteria and no room at the inn for former New Mexico governor Johnson.
The criteria announced by the CPD require a 15 percent average in five pre-selected polls. Never mind that the weight of support for Johnson’s inclusion — 62 percent in this recent Quinnipiac poll), or that Johnson is polling over 15 percent in 15 states and over 10 percent in 42 states, or that major newspapers like the Boston Herald, Chicago Tribune, Washington Examiner and Richmond Times-Dispatch are calling for him to debate with Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump.
Ask the CPD why a 15 percent average. Why not 14 percent? Why not 18 percent? How did 15 percent get to be the magic number? Go ahead, ask them. I’m telling you, no one can tell you where it came from.
The Libertarian Party is on the ballot in all 50 states. For that reason, Gary Johnson should be on that debate stage because he is an alternative available to the entire nation.
I am not endorsing Gary Johnson here. All I’m saying is, as I learned American history, the most fundamental aspect of liberty in the U.S. Constitution is the right to decide issues on your own.
How does liberty thrive? As the Washington Examiner pointed out in its editorial, it thrives only “in the free market of ideas, where different ideas are allowed to compete and the best idea wins.”
The best chance America has in a year like this one, when so many Americans say confidence in our leaders is at rock bottom, is if they hear competing visions for the future, not the back-and-forth nonsense flying between the two major candidates day after day, and no doubt on the debate stage.
Having said all this, if Johnson is on the eligibility cusp, then the CPD may exercise subjectivity in making a determination whether to include him. They are an entity apart. They can interpret the criteria in all kinds of ways.
In the meantime, if the people want Johnson in, they might try signing the Libertarian Party’s petition to let him debate Sept. 26 at Hofstra University, and at the three debates that follow. I’m for that. In 2012, when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney, a Reason-Rupe poll found 48 percent of Americans said they would be willing to vote for a candidate who described him or herself as “conservative on economic issues” and also “liberal on social issues,” which is how Gary Johnson self-describes. I doubt that answer would change much today.
Let’s at least hear what Johnson has to say.
Nancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.