A group of prominent former public officials is challenging the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to allow independent and third-party candidates to participate in the presidential debates held before each election. The current rule requires candidates to maintain at least 15% across five major national public opinion polls leading up to the debate. In today’s political climate, that just about guarantees that no third-party candidate will gain entrance—the only ‘recent’ exception was Ross Perot in 1992.

The group consists of former governors Bruce Babbitt and Jon Huntsman, former senators Bob Kerrey and Joe Lieberman, and former CIA director Michael Hayden, among nearly fifty others. They argue in their letter to the CPD that the 15% rule dissuades potential candidates, erodes faith in government, and relies on biased and faulty polls. The alternative they propose is to require candidates to collect 4 to 6 million signatures from a cross-section of the American public.

One of the main themes of the letter is that the CPD has created a “structural impediment to a truly fair and competitive presidential election.” This sounds a lot like a debate theory argument, but instead of appealing to the intrinsic value of fairness, these former officials stress the pragmatic benefits of having a fair debate process. A spot in the debates would give the American people a chance to get to know non-major-party candidates and their positions.

I am a staunch supporter of more open and fair debates for this very reason. Fair debate encourages familiarity with the arguments, not just the two faces supported by major media outlets. To get my ballot, a president should have to field attacks from all angles, not just resuscitate canned responses to questions known in advance. If the big party candidates fail to fend off proposals and objections from the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Constitution Party, then they fail to convince me that they should hold the highest office. And they should fail to convince you, too.

We value debate because it is a real competition testing the skill of our orators and the merit of their ideas, not just another dog-and-pony show.

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Bob co-directs Premier Debate, coaches his alma mater Loyola High School and debates on the NDT/CEDA circuit for the USC Trojan Debate Squad. His students earned 32 TOC bids in his first two years coaching. As a senior at Loyola, Bob earned 11 bids and was a TOC finalist.

 

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