Debates need diversity, not dichotomy

by Eric Twardzik / Beacon Staff • October 4, 2012

Last night the University of Denver became a battleground for the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. As pundits and pols pick through the wreckage for signs of triumph and defeat, and Emerson students take to Twitter and Facebook to craft debate memes, the fact that both candidates outright ignored some of our nation’s most pressing problems is likely to go unnoticed. 

Regardless of which candidate is declared winner, the narrow filter through which the debate’s arguments are presented by the two major parties is a loss for the public. Voters deserve a third voice to illuminate the problems neither governing party feels comfortable discussing, and that voice could be former Republican Governor of New Mexico and current Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson. Johnson, who scaled the peak of Mount Everest in 2003, may have a tougher time trying to climb his way onto a debate stage before November. 

In September, Johnson filed a lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates. The suit claims that the exclusion of third party candidates from the stage violates the Sherman Anti-Trust act, which prevents businesses from reducing marketplace competition.

In this case, the businesses are the Republican and Democratic Parties, which jointly established the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987, and the competition is for the Oval Office. The major parties conveniently determine the rules for debate entry, and have set them to make access for third party candidates they outmatch in resources and media attention difficult. 

For debate access, the Commission mandates that a candidate be listed on enough state ballots to earn 270 electoral college votes and receive a minimum 15 percent share of voters in a national poll. Johnson is on the ballot in 47 states, providing him with an electoral college pool far above the prerequisite, but his highest national poll number has only been four percent, in a recent CNN/ORC poll.

It’s a shame that voters won’t see Johnson beside Obama and Romney. If present, Johnson could add a bead of sweat under the other candidates’ collars as he brings up some inconvenient truths. 

A Gallup poll from October 2011 found that a record 50 percent of Americans supported the legalization of marijuana. Drug reform is a serious conversation worth having and relates to the national deficit, but Romney is silent on the topic and Obama has only increased the federal government’s attacks on medical marijuana providers, contrary to his 2008 campaign pledge to honor state laws on the issue. Johnson, who announced his support for marijuana legalization as a sitting Republican governor in 1999, has made it a central tenet of his campaign and could force the president to answer to his contradictory stances on drug law. 

Obama and Romney have been just as unwilling to touch Afghanistan during the presidential race. This Sunday marks the 11th anniversary of a war that has claimed more than 2,000 American lives, but as far as the campaign trail is concerned, it could have ended years ago. Sixty-eight thousand American soldiers are still fighting the disintegrating conflict, which has seen increasingly bold and successful attacks by the Taliban, government corruption, tribal fragmentation, and 53 cases in 2012 alone of NATO soldiers being killed by their own Afghan allies. 

The grim status of America’s oldest war deserves to be addressed by the men competing for national office, but the war only receives two lines of attention on Obama’s website, calmly maintaining that the last American forces will leave by 2014. Romney is quick to attack the disaster in Afghanistan as “Obama’s failure” on his website, but he offers no solution of his own beyond the vagaries of “Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders.” 

The two candidates’ ostrich-in-the-sand attitude toward the Afghanistan endgame show that it is a loser as a campaign issue, undesirable for each contender, and a talking point neither wants to bring up during a debate. Johnson is the only candidate with a paramount answer — an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. Johnson’s solution may be radical, but if he had the chance to propose it during a debate, Obama and Romney would be forced to confront a national quagmire they would rather kick under the rug with vague doublespeak.

Seeing Johnson debate is a pipe dream. His anti-trust suit has no real chance of landing him a spot on stage, but it could succeed by generating more attention for the third party candidate, and a third voice. Voters deserve another opinion, and if they can’t get it on stage, they can seek it out by giving Gary Johnson a serious look.