Third-party presidential debate gives a voice to long-shot candidates

Four third-party candidates below President Obama and Mitt Romney on the presidential ballot made their case to a televised audience, taking on issues not included in the mainstream debates: the drug war, bailout for student loans, and corporate influence in politics.

Combination photos taken from video

If the four long-shot presidential contenders are “kind of Don Quixotes,” as debate moderator Larry King put it, then at least on Tuesday night their windmill jousting would be televised.

Those who saw Jill Stein (Green Party), Rocky Anderson (Justice Party), Virgil Goode (Constitution Party), and Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) square off at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago on C-SPAN or streamed online got a glimpse of the little-known contenders below President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney on the ballot in many states.

What the public saw was broad agreement on issues ranging from the war on drugs (end it) to the future of American military spending (reduce it), as well as a handful of proposals from each candidate that stand in stark relief to the policies of either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney.

The debate, supported by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and moderated by Mr. King and the foundation’s Christina Tobin, offered an opportunity for the little-known candidates to make their cases to the public in a forum that was “good and real and honest and open, without debate contracts and private interests,” as Ms. Tobin put it.

Whether by their near-zero polling numbers or the strictures of a two-party political system, these candidates were shut out of the more heavily watched debates between Obama and Romney. (Mr. Johnson garnered enough support to be included in a single candidates' debate during the GOP primary process, however.)

The candidates found plenty of common ground. All four opposed rules that winnow contenders for public office, saying they are bad for democracy and unnecessarily limit voter choices. All supported reductions in American military spending. All said they would have vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act.

All but Mr. Goode said they would legalize marijuana and end the “war on drugs.” Goode said he would keep marijuana illegal but would cut spending on drug enforcement as part of his plan to deeply reduce federal spending in his first year in office.

But the candidates did open up some policy proposals sharply different from one another and from the two major-party presidential candidates.

Dr. Stein and Mr. Anderson called for free higher education for all Americans, with Stein pointing out the benefits from the original, post-World War II G.I. bill and Anderson arguing that other industrialized nations have already achieved such a system.

Johnson and Goode ridiculed the sentiment as ignoring the reality of America’s beleaguered fiscal condition.

“ ‘Free’ comes with a cost,” Johnson said. “ ‘Free’ is accumulating more to the $16 trillion in debt than we already have. ‘Free’ has gotten us to the point where we are going to have a monetary collapse.”

When asked to offer one constitutional amendment they would most like to see passed, the candidates again diverged. Anderson argued for a “new Equal Rights Amendment” enshrining protection from discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.

Johnson and Goode said they would push for term limits for Congress – something they say would keep members focused on achievement instead of political longevity.

Stein said that even with term limits, “corporations and big money can still buy what they want.” Hence, her preferred amendment would upend the US Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling authorizing limitless campaign spending by corporations and individuals.

Other notable offerings unmentioned by the two major-party candidates included:

  • Stein, a physician, promised a “New Green Deal” of 25 million jobs in fields like sustainable energy and mass transit and bailing out American student loan debt.
  • Anderson, a former two-time Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, said the major candidates had all but ignored two significant issues: America’s poor, with poverty at its highest level since 1965, and climate change.
  • Goode, a former six-term congressman from Virginia, argued for a “near-complete moratorium” on new immigration to the US until unemployment fell under 5 percent.
  • Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, vowed to not bomb Iran and to repeal the Patriot Act.

Johnson – whose flip observation during his only GOP primary debate that his neighbor’s dog had produced more “shovel ready jobs” than Obama’s stimulus plan – was the source of much of the night’s levity.

In a debate peppered with complaints about how big money had infected the two major political parties and America’s democratic system, none drove the point home so squarely as when Johnson argued that candidates should, during debates, have to wear NASCAR-esque jackets sewn with the logos of their biggest donors.

Later, after Goode offered a simple, one-sentence answer to a question and King wondered why all candidates could not be so succinct, Johnson shot back: “This is like shamelessly pitching oneself,” he said with a grin, “so I’m going to take advantage of shamelessly pitching myself here.”

The debate did have its share of unwieldy moments.

First, King false-started, welcoming viewers to the debate several minutes before it was ready to go – and then had an on-air discussion of where, exactly, he was supposed to peer into the cameras.

Then, the candidates were nearly through discussing the first question on how general election candidates are selected before Johnson interjected, pointing out that candidates had skipped opening statements.

The candidates then gave their two-minute opening monologues some 15 minutes into the actual debate.

Several times a wide-angle shot of the debate hall showed more than a few empty seats, combining with the rather informal setting for the moderators (King, in a deep blue shirt, red suspenders, and no jacket, sat with two coffee cups before him on a simple table) to make the debate look more like a televised (and mandatory) college seminar than a presidential smackdown.

And after all four candidates announced their displeasure at election rules that limit candidate choice, Tobin announced that the group would be holding a subsequent debate on Tuesday, Oct. 30 – but that viewers would have to pick which two candidates would be invited by voting in an “instant run-off” poll on the Free and Equal website.

But the night’s point was to offer, however fleeting, a time for long-shot candidates to have their say.

As King said in conclusion, “the windmills have a way of stopping – and we have a way of saluting you, just for getting into the fray.”

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