Stein and Johnson should be included in presidential debates

Now that the party conventions are over, the next major focus of media attention are the debates. There will be three presidential debates (Monday, September 26; Sunday, October 9; and Wednesday, October 19) and one vice-presidential debate (Tuesday, October 4) all lasting from 9:00pm-10:30pm Eastern time.

There have been ongoing arguments as to whether these debates actually change people’s minds about whom they are going to support and the evidence is decidedly mixed with some saying no and others arguing that they do.

But for me that is less important than the fact that, as I have said many times before, elections are a good time to get people engaged about important issues and the debates can, in principle, play an important role. But what has happened is that the two major parties have commandeered the debate system and made it mush less informative than it could be.

The presidential debates have gone seriously downhill ever since the so-called bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates wrested control of the debates from the independent League of Women Voters in 1988. Despite its high-falutin’ name, the CPD is run by party hacks and loyalists from the Democratic and Republican parties whose main goal seems to be to avoid any potential for harm to their candidates.

One way they do that is to limit participation, by putting in a rule that says that third parties must poll at 15% or higher to be invited, an absurdly high bar. According to current polls, the Libertarian party’s Gary Johnson is polling around 9% and the Green party’s Jill Stein is polling above 3%. Even at 3%, we are talking about 4 million possible voters, hardly insignificant. Having them in the debates would provide much-needed diversity of views on many issues but current rules will keep them out.

Zaid Jilani explains how bad the debates have become since the CPD took over, with new rules for each election season to prevent those things that had in previous years allowed some real debate and questioning.

Under pressure from the Democratic and Republican campaigns, the CPD has become notorious for picking the most nonadversarial and noncontroversial panelists possible, so that campaigns will not object or threaten to boycott the debates.

The debates for the 2012 general election debates featured no black or Latino moderators. Politico noted that the average age of the chosen debate moderators was 69, and none were drawn from new media.

“In order to be considered as a candidate for moderator you have to be soaked in the sphere of consensus, likely to stay within the predictable inner rings of the sphere of legitimate controversy, and unlikely in the extreme to select any questions from the sphere of deviance,” media critic Jay Rosen told Politico.

The more parties that are represented, the broader the debate. Neither Clinton nor Trump, for instance, are calling for an end to the drug war, significantly reducing the military budget, taxing carbon, ending the death penalty, or establishing a publicly run universal health insurance system – despite the fact that nontrivial numbers of Americans, and some third parties such as the Libertarian and Green parties, want to see these options explored.

Jilani provides some suggestions on how the debates could be improved.

Among the most often-cited possible improvements: They could allow for longer response times; require candidates to ask each other open-ended questions; invite third parties; and be moderated by panelists who are experts in various subject areas and who are free to aggressively follow up on candidate responses, pushing them to dig down into policy questions.

One proposal sponsored by the Appleseed Electoral Reform Project at American University’s Washington College of Law suggests that any candidate should be invited to participate who achieves enough ballot access to theoretically win the election and who is registering at 5 percent in national polls (the same amount needed to receive federal funding) — or who the majority of Americans tell pollsters they want included in the debates.

In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan would have made the cut. This year, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson is easily crossing the 5 percent threshold. Green Party candidate Jill Stein is just shy of it.

Jilani’s article makes many other interesting suggestions but the CPD’s mandate from the two parties seems to be to make the debates as bland and content-free as possible so I cannot see them accepting the ideas.


  1. says

    I don’t get why anyone cares about the debates. There are going to be a bunch of people and they’re all going to be lying. Probably the only thing anyone will say that you can believe is “my opponent is lying.” Well, duh.

  2. hyphenman says


    The debates, like the conventions, have become carefully orchestrated non-events; and that very well may be by design.

    I frankly can’t remember the last debate that I watched, and I don’t feel the least bit uninformed by that fact.


  3. busterggi says

    Absolutely the debates should include those two. All involved should also be supplied with one cream pie to use at an unspecified time during the debate. You know you’d watch for that.

  4. Silentbob says

    the two major parties have commandeered the debate system and made it mush

    I see what you did there.


  5. Chiroptera says

    Zaid Jilani: …and be moderated by panelists who are experts in various subject areas and who are free to aggressively follow up on candidate responses….

    Hell, I would be happy if newspapers and newsmagazines would just interview experts in various subject areas and ask them about the candidates’ policy proposals. And then send reporters to follow up on the candidates’ responses to the experts’ opinions.

    I long ago got tired of the media limiting itself to evaluating the candidates’ proposals by how they affect their poll standings.

  6. Jackson says

    Without the Green Party candidate there, I bet no candidate has the bravery and clear headedness to acuse Monsanto of using wifi to give our children autism.

  7. Jackson says

    It was tongue in cheek, but also expressing a real annoyance at her actual, full context comments about vaccines, GMOs, and wifi.
    The article Mano linked to called the media attacks on Stein out of context, and then spent zero words giving the context or explaining or defending Stein’s comments. But it did spend a lot of words complaining about elites and the media. And the delusional assertion that momentum has shifted to Stein and the Greens.
    It is textbook anti-vax to say you aren’t anti-vax, you are pro safe vax. Stein said vaccines work and have prevented disease, but in the very next sentence said the FDA is corrupt and can’t be trusted and Big Pharma is putting toxins in your vaccines. I don’t think Stein is anti-vax, but she sure is pandering to them.
    If you want to supply context that will explain Stein and the Green Party’s bizarre comments on wifi, their pro alt-med and homeopathy stance, and their anti-GMO position, I’ll listen.

  8. Mano Singham says


    Snopes took a close look at Stein’s stance on vaccination and you can read it here.

    Her criticisms of the medical-industrial complex is what led to people claiming that she is opposed to vaccinations.

  9. Jackson says


    I don’t think the Snopes article contradicts my position. She is probably not anti-vax herself, but she is using her political rhetoric to pander to the anti-vax green party voting block. I can’t tell the difference between Stein’s rhetoric and Jenny McCarthy’s. They both say that they are pro safe vaccines, but that you can’t trust the safety of vaccines because the FDA is corrupt and Big Pharma is putting dangerous toxins vaccines. Then to short circuit any rational thought in green party voters, throw in the name “Monsanto,” even though they have nothing to do with vaccines.

  10. says

    No Mano, her blatant pandering to the anti-vaxxers, and her inability to plainly say their opposition is based on BS, is what gets he labelled “anti-vax.”

    And why the hell should we do ANYTHING to accommodate two fringe-parties who are a) irrelevant to the general public, and b) blatantly dishonest and long-standing tools of the Republicans?

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