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Jewish World Review July 24, 2000 / 21 Tamuz, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Consumer Reports

Open up the presidential debates! -- GENERALLY, public interest in the presidential championship bout begins to rise during the conventions and crests about the time the Commission on Presidential Debates holds its tournament.

Both Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader are understandably eager to get this prime-time exposure, but there is no assurance that either will receive an invitation.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which was established in 1987, is nonpartisan and nonprofit. It's financed by a number of foundations and corporations, including Anheuser-Busch. Starting on Oct. 3, the debates will be shown on the Public Broadcasting System and the various television networks, as well as on the Internet.

What concerns Nader and Buchanan is the Commission's rule that no candidate is eligible to participate in the three presidential debates unless he is supported by 15 percent of those surveyed in the five national polls conducted by ABC-Washington Post, CBS-New York Times, NBC-Wall Street Journal, CNN-USA Today-Gallup and Fox-Opinion Dynamics. (The most accurate poll, Zogby's, is omitted.)

As Dave Boyer noted in the Washington Times, the presidential race "is so competitive in the tier of decisive states from New Jersey to Illinois, that Pat Buchanan and even consumer warhorse Ralph Nader could affect the outcome, pollsters and analysts say."

Actually, Nader is hardly running like a plodding "warhorse." In 1996, he only went through the motions of running for president. But this time, he is energetically campaigning in every state on the Green Party ticket, and getting much more attention. He'll be on the ballot in 47 states. In one Zogby poll, he scored 5.7 percent, compared with Buchanan's 3.6 percent. He's getting 9 percent of the vote in the polls in the West -- mostly, according to the Washington Times, "from younger, more liberal voters who presumably would otherwise support Mr. Gore."

And Time magazine reports that Nader also "plays especially well with the elderly over 70 -- worried about prescription-drug benefits" and other essentials of survival. Also, as the Wall Street Journal notes, Nader's name is recognized by 80 percent of Americans. So is Buchanan's.

Pat Buchanan, of course, in addition to being on the way to taking over the Reform Party, has a solid constituency of those pro-lifers who will not compromise their principles, as well as -- and this may be a largely hidden vote -- people who want much tighter immigration "reform." Some of America's anti-Semites may gravitate toward Buchanan because they think that he shares their bigotry -- which he denies. In any case, both Nader and Buchanan -- even if neither reaches 15 percent of the vote in the polls -- are obviously more than quixotic candidates. Their positions are clearly distinguishable, and differ from those of Gore and Bush. And, as Nader says, "these debates have become a central part of the election process."

But the Commission on Presidential Debates claims: "We believe the 15-percent figure is a fair and reasonable measure and threshold, and strikes a balance between reality and fairness."

What these catalysts of public opinion -- through these debates -- consider "fair and reasonable" strikes me as arbitrary. And I expect that other voters -- not only partisans of Nader and Buchanan -- resent this "guided democracy."

The New York-based FAIR, which describes itself as "The Media Watch Group," makes the necessary point that "the TV networks need not cede any authority to a Commission on Presidential Debates" that, in effect, creates "a closed two-party cartel."

"The networks," FAIR continues, "or perhaps PBS or a cable channel, could step forward and set their own terms, extending their own invitations for a series of debates, leaving empty seats for candidates who fail to appear."

If the Commission does not change its 15-percent rule -- and if the various television operations remain subservient to the Commission's criteria -- FAIR foresees protests at the sites of the debates by indignant citizens. It could happen. I might even carry a sign: "Democracy can't breathe on 15 percent of the air." In June, Ralph Nader filed a suit in Federal Court against the Federal Election Commission, charging that corporate sponsorship of the debates is an illegal corporate campaign contribution.

Also, the debates would be a lot livelier with Pat and Ralph.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2000, NEA