One would expect an event with rabble-rousing Republican Alan Keyes and unlikely Pat Buchanan-backing liberal Lenora Fulani headlining to be high on political theater and low on substance. But the opposite happened when the two came together Monday to announce a suit against the Federal Election Commission.
The year's strangest political bedfellows are calling for the FEC to require a place at the table for independent and third-party candidates at this fall's presidential debates. At their joint and unusually sincere press conference, the stars kept mike hogging to a minimum. And Keyes, once the darling of GOP hard-liners, performed his trademark oratorical routine to a half-empty house.
Keyes toned down his showmanship from the headier early days of his campaign, but he didn't abandon it entirely. "At the end of the day, we all know what this feeds," said Keyes, referring to the two-party stranglehold on the debates. "It feeds cynicism. It feeds distrust. It feeds a sense on the part of many people in this country that in fact our elections are a sham that have no significance, but are the manipulated outcome dictated in the end by those who already have the power and the money," he preached.
Fulani said the suit "is a challenge to the corrupt two parties and one institution constructed expressly to service them."
Keyes is a black Republican, a political species more rare by several times than gay Republicans; and Fulani, who is also African-American, supports Buchanan, a man who has been criticized for his racist and anti-Semitic tendencies and who was relegated to the margins of the GOP until he bolted to the Reform Party. Fulani is also a longtime supporter of gay rights, affirmative action and "economic justice." Keyes has made a name for himself railing against the "homosexual agenda," dismissing affirmative action as "patronizing" and counterproductive and opposing any hikes in the minimum wage.
This lawsuit is one of the few places where these political opposites can find common ground -- their growing resentment of a political establishment they believe silences their voices.
Others supporting the aims of the suit, filed by the nonpartisan Committee for a Unified Independent Party, include the Libertarian, Green and Reform parties. The action aims to overturn FEC regulations that allow the Commission on Presidential Debates to effectively shut out third-party candidates in the fall campaign forums by requiring that candidates carry the support of 15 percent of voters in national polls before they may participate.
Among the crowd backing the lawsuit, "bipartisan" is a bad word, no matter how often Democrats and Republicans use it as a synonym for cooperation. One speaker after another railed against what they described as bipartisan collusion, which discourages a multiparty system that would be more responsive to voters.
Fulani contends that the debates are an essential gateway by which third parties can emerge from political obscurity. "The debates are widely regarded as the most important events of the presidential campaign," she said.
Keyes, like no other candidate this year, exemplifies how difficult it is to parlay strong debating skills into ballot-box power. Though he did well in debates in a crowded Republican field during the primaries, at times generating more heat among the GOP faithful than George W. Bush, those performances brought Keyes only two delegates. Still, Keyes insisted that his presence at the debates had a powerful impact.
But Monday's less-than-packed press conference begged a different question: Has the media interest in Keyes and Fulani peaked?
Only about a dozen journalists attended, roughly the number who follow former candidate John McCain to and from his car every day. And though McCain's contentious relationships with other politicians, even those within his own party, have made him a press favorite, the political dust-ups that Keyes and Fulani have entangled themselves in may have diminished their value to a multiparty movement.
As longtime reform advocate John Anderson put it, the duo may "overshadow the debate question" and prove counterproductive.
As an independent presidential candidate in 1980, and in his work with the nonprofit Center for Voting and Democracy, Anderson has advocated a more open structure for presidential debates, though he is not connected to the CUIP suit. Now president of the World Federalist Association, Anderson says he finds no fault with the message, just with the choice of Fulani and Keyes to deliver it. "These would be two of the last people who I would bring on as messengers for a more open debate policy," he said.