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Debates need another voice

This is a story I wrote for my site at on Oct. 8, 2008

If last night’s presidential debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain should teach us  anything it is that these forums need an infusion of new ideas that a  third-party candidate could provide.

Although some in the press have touted the 90-minute encounter as a  substantive clash between two different ideologies, both major candidates did  little but repeat old campaign lines designed more to stay on message than  enlighten the voting public.

It is true that the debate was helpful in revealing the different  temperaments of the candidates, with McCain coming across as a bit irritated and  grumpy and Obama looking steady and calm.

But on the major issues facing the nation, both candidates represent two  different slices of the same pie.

Take health care, for example. Yes, Obama described health care as a right  while McCain called it a responsibility, but both candidates agreed on the  fundamental principle that America’s health insurance system should be run by  the for-profit private sector. There was no discussion of whether other  alternatives should be tested.

Moreover, both major-party candidates are calling for deep tax cuts, with  McCain saying he would reduce taxes for everyone while Obama is proposing a cut  for “95 percent of Americans.” The question that is not raised is whether tax  cuts are a proper course of action given that the United States is running a $10  trillion national debt, a portion of which is owned by the Chinese and other  foreign entities.

Finally, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans question the basic  assumption that the United States must always maintain its military domination  of the world, regardless of the price. In talking about the economy, Obama  and McCain both said that one reason America must fix the financial services  industry is so the nation could remain militarily strong. Whether the American  public is properly served by the current military-industrial complex is not open  for discussion. It is just assumed to be true.

By inviting third-party candidates to participate in presidential debates,  voters would stand a greater chance of hearing a variety of different viewpoints  not exposed by the Democrats and Republicans. There would be a greater chance,  for example, of having a debate over the merits of a single-payer,  government-run health insurance system versus the current private-sector model.  Voters could listen to the various arguments and overtime decide which path to  take, but citizens are rarely given this opportunity to hear these other  perspectives.

In addition, allowing presidential candidates like Independent Ralph  Nader, Green Cynthia McKinney and  Libertarian Bob Barr to  spar with Obama and McCain would make the debates more freewheeling and force  the two major-party contenders to come off message to protect their left and  right flanks. The forums would be less predictable, making it harder for each  candidate to memorized rehearsed lines.

One of the main arguments against third-party inclusion in debates is that  these contenders have virtually no chance of winning in November. Why waste the  voters’ time learning about a third-party candidate, the argument goes, when  that candidate is unlikely to garner more than 2 or 3 percent of the total  vote.

Fair enough. But this argument misses what should be the main point of the  election season. Campaigns are not just about a contest of winners and losers.  They are a time in the nation’s life cycle when citizens come together to learn  about issues, consider various ideas and determine which course the nation will  follow.

If America is serious about the notion that democratic debate operates like a  marketplace of ideas, then future presidential debates should be open to more  candidates so as to allow more ideas to enter that marketplace.

It is certainly true that a McKinney or Nader will not win on Nov. 4. But by  adding their voice into the presidential debates, voters may be infused with new  ways of looking at old issues; basic assumptions might be challenged, and an  avenue may be opened for one day moving in a truly different direction.

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