Room at the Debate Table

Third parties are not spoilers. They deserve air time.

The two-party system is well-established in America. But it's not set in concrete, or in law.

Other political voices can arise, as the quick rise (and now apparent decline) of the Reform Party showed over the past eight years.

These voices often air significant discontent, or neglected issues. They capture a yearning for something different - and perhaps more genuine - among millions of voters. They are stern critics of politics as usual.

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This year was to have been a good one for such third-party firebrands. Once the early drama was drained from the Democratic and Republican primaries, the two long-anticipated nominees were widely perceived as, well, bland and blander.

Riding to the rescue of bored or disaffected voters are the Reform Party's probable nominee, Pat Buchanan, and the Green Party's Ralph Nader. But these gentlemen have a tough uphill ride.

Mr. Buchanan has his trademark economic and social issues, from trade-threatened jobs to abortion. But he also carries negative baggage from past comments. So far, he's barely a blip in the polls.

Mr. Nader's outlook is brighter. He has had a long and often highly constructive role as a consumer and environmental advocate, and as a governmental gadfly. What he lacks in political charisma he makes up for in forthrightness. And his issues - universal healthcare, prison reform, stronger labor laws, public financing for elections, to name a few - tap into various veins of public dissatisfaction. Perhaps most important, Nader can credibly present himself as an alternative to glad-handing politicians beholden to corporations and many other large institutional interests.

Nader attracts young people and liberals tired of Clinton-Gore middle-of-the-roadism. Recent surveys indicate he could get as much as 6 percent of the national vote in November. On the West Coast, especially in California, he's even more popular and might erode Gore's prospects there.

For his part, Nader has said he just wants to do well enough to have the Green Party qualify for federal money next time around - a goal he seems very likely to attain.

But the keys to third-party competitiveness are (1) to get on the ballot in all, or nearly all, the states and (2) to get in the presidential debates.

Assuming Buchanan receives the Reform Party's nomination at its August convention, he can ride the party's relative success in '92 and '96 to get on most ballots. And he'll have the $12.5 million in federal campaign money due the Reform nominee.

Nader, on the other hand, has had to battle to get on some state ballots - he confidently predicts he'll meet his party's goal of 45 - and, somewhat out of character, he's been doing some vigorous fundraising for the campaign.

But both will have to reach 15 percent in national polls before they'll be invited to the televised debates this fall. That very high hurdle is set by the "nonpartisan" Commission on Presidential Debates. Significantly, the Democratic and Republican co-chairmen of the commission are both former national party chairmen. It's doubtful they're very interested in lowering the bar for third-party candidates.

The 15 percent hurdle won't be easily cleared. Both Nader and Buchanan are likely to challenge the commission's rules in court. We hope they succeed.

Buchanan rightly points out that media which conduct polls that influence the eligibility for the debates also let themselves be influenced by those polls in the amount of coverage given to candidates.

So third-party candidates are caught in a Catch-22. Someone's chances of winning are determined by people who influence his or her chances of winning.

A couple of trends argue for giving third parties a guaranteed platform. The media are covering politics less, forcing candidates to rely on TV ads more. And the cost of buying more ads has pushed the two major parties to become more beholden to well-heeled donors, be they corporations or rich individuals.

A pre-election debate that brings in a wider range of views can only strengthen the vibrant dialogue that's needed to inform voters. The debate structure should be enlarged to include any candidate who either gets, or whose poll figures indicate his or her party will get, public campaign financing.

It's highly probably that after months of back and forth between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the public will be more than ready to hear another voice or two.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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