With all the gamesmanship and evasion that has attended the attempt to schedule a debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the likelihood of including the third-party candidates in any such encounter seems remote. It is difficult to argue that either Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan, each languishing amid the low single digits in every recent poll, has earned a place at the podium so far. And the great majority of citizens who will choose either the Democrat or the Republican deserve to hear exactly how Bush and Gore differ on important issues, without excessive static from their lesser competitors.
Yet the spirit and practice of democracy will be better served if at least one debate between now and November includes four candidates rather than just two.
That isn't because the Reform Party or the Green Party are viable alternatives to the two major parties. They aren't. And even if those decrepit entities were in better shape, American constitutional and federal structures tend to favor a two-party system -- providing third parties with little opportunity to break out of their lowly status as spoilers. So why invite them to spoil one of the few occasions when Gore and Bush eventually do meet?
First, precisely because the Democrats and Republicans already possess excessive advantages in our system, they shouldn't be allowed to exclude their would-be competitors from all of the events that promise to attract the greatest voter attention. Second, because third-party activists and the constituencies they represent ought to be encouraged rather than discouraged from participating in electoral politics, especially at a time when citizens are turning away from political life in droves. Third, and most important, the ideas put forward by the candidates would broaden a national discussion that will otherwise remain dull and narrow.
The debates are, after all, a form of free media for the candidates involved. Their audience share depends on airtime provided by the broadcast television networks -- which are licensed by the federal government and therefore shouldn't assist the Democrats and Republicans in shutting out competition, even from minor parties. In fairness, the networks and the government ought to balance the strong bipartisan bias of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which otherwise dominates the setup and scheduling of those events.
While the national interest is served in certain ways by debates between the two major candidates, there is an equal and countervailing purpose for holding at least one debate that includes four or even five (why leave out those dogged Libertarians?) candidates representing as many parties.
In the most tightly contested election in 20 years, there will be no lack of drama in the debates between Bush and Gore, but there may well be a lack of engaging substance. So far, the intellectual duel has been largely confined to the worthy but hardly encompassing topic of prescription drug coverage for senior citizens. No doubt that agenda will be expanded at any debate, but both major candidates will tend to restate their core positions and to resist discussing anything that seems even mildly dangerous. The presence of candidates such as Buchanan and Nader would force Bush and Gore to talk about important matters they would prefer to avoid but shouldn't be allowed to ignore.
The failed war on drugs, for instance, is a subject that demands frank and freewheeling debate of a kind that would make both major candidates very nervous. Nader has already said much that is worth hearing, however, about such relevant but taboo issues as decriminalizing marijuana, increasing treatment programs as an alternative to stiffening prison sentences and utilizing methods like needle exchange to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Gore and Bush should have to explain why they oppose such common-sense reforms, which have been endorsed by prominent judges, police officials and scientists. They also deserve to be asked why the government imprisons anyone for a crime -- the possession of marijuana -- that both leading presidential candidates may have committed themselves. (Gore has admitted that he smoked pot in the past; while Bush has repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether he had used drugs, offering only a non-denial: "I made mistakes.")
The presence of Buchanan and Nader could also enrich the discussion of international trade and foreign policy, with particular reference to China and Cuba. Both Bush and Gore have endorsed the present contradictory policy of coddling the big Communist dictatorship while punishing the tiny one. Although a panel of journalists might question either or both of the major candidates about this jointly held delusion, the discussion will be much sharper if the articulate gadflies are around to puncture the platitudinous answers of their rivals.
If Bush and Gore finally manage to negotiate a series of bipartisan debates, the significant disagreements between Democrats and Republicans will probably be explored adequately by Election Day. By confronting instead of fleeing the other two candidates for one evening before then, they would honor their own rhetoric about diversity and inclusion.