The Pulse: Third-party voices deserve a place in presidential debates

Vin Weber spent 12 years in Congress representing Minnesota while earning a reputation as a stalwart Republican. Today he's committed to the election of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Nevertheless, he's hoping that in the fall of 2016, Bush will be joined on the presidential debate stage by not one but two opponents.

Weber is one of several dozen former officeholders active in a movement called Change the Rule, which seeks to make it easier for an independent candidate to share the stage in a way that hasn't occurred since Ross Perot joined George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1992.

"Too often this discussion comes down to the Democrats trying to game it so it helps them or the Republicans trying to game it so it helps them, and certainly there can be an impact one way or the other," Weber told me, "but what's lost in this is the fact that the American political system itself is being damaged. . . . I'm a Republican, but I think the American political system needs some oxygen injected through this debate process."

The rule Weber and his cohorts want changed is the requirement of having 15 percent in the polls prior to the debates in order for a candidate to be invited to participate. Instead, they favor a petition process tied to rewarding those candidates who can get on enough states' ballots to reach the requisite 270 electoral votes.

Weber knows that timing is everything because once we get into the heat of the campaign, partisans will view this initiative through a biased lens based on likely third-party candidates and from whom they might draw votes.

"At this point it's unclear and that's what we want - people to focus on the process and figure out how we can strengthen the American political process without necessarily portraying it as a threat to either the Democrats or the Republicans," Weber said.

With a January Gallup survey showing that an all-time high 43 percent of Americans view themselves as politically independent, and not Republican or Democrat, the idea is that a third-party candidate will give a voice to the nonaligned, and force the two major-party candidates to defend their positions against the middle.

"The two parties have become quite more polarized - the Republicans are more conservative and the Democrats are more liberal - and the exclusion of a third voice doesn't challenge those ideological assumptions," Weber said. "I'm a conservative Republican, but you need to be challenged by people - not just who are diametrically opposed to you - but by people who may want compromise or something in the middle, and so the idea that you could have a third voice, an independent third party on the platform with genuine support across the country, will inject a new dynamic into that race and hopefully begin to break this up."

Weber's main objective at this point is to have a dialogue with the Commission on Presidential Debates, a wish that will be granted according to Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., who, along with Michael D. McCurry, is cochair of the commission. (Fahrenkopf is a former chair of the Republican National Committee, and McCurry was press secretary for Clinton.) Fahrenkopf told me Change the Rule would be given full consideration.

"We'll look hard at that, but we also have three or four other proposals as to whether or not to do away with the 15 percent rule," he said. "We've got a special committee of the board that will review it."

Fahrenkopf expressed concern that a change could benefit wealthy candidates.

"We also have to realize that's expensive to do this," he said. "Each state has different rules as to how many petition signatures you have to receive to get on the ballot. So it's ready-made here for someone who's a millionaire or billionaire who can spend the money to hire the people to go out and get the signatures. These are the kind of things that we're plowing through before we make any decision one way or the other. So there are some issues that we've got to resolve."

An impressive lineup of Republicans and Democrats is supporting the rule change, including former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who represented Indiana and cochaired the 9/11 Commission; former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman; former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman; and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Another supporter is David King, senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. King pointed out to me that not even Perot would meet the 15 percent threshold today.

"I want to call attention to the fact that people learn an awful lot about the presidential candidates and the presidential race in that final window, the last month or so when the debates are taking place," King said. "It's really just political activists who are paying attention before September, and we need a much broader base of Americans to care, to invest, and the choices are already locked in by this commission on presidential debates, which is really a commission on the protection for the two-party system. It is absolutely anticompetitive."

The commission's mission statement would seem welcoming of increased involvement: "The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners."

 


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Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.