Presidential Campaign

Trump and Clinton should ‘un-rig’ the debates

Donald Trump has declared that the presidential election is likely to be rigged. Here is his chance to do something about it.

As Washington turns inward to begin its all-important — some might say elitist — debate as to which media superstars get to referee the fall presidential debates, GOP nominee Trump has already voiced concerns about who may be chosen. As has been one of his mantras, Trump says he only wants to be treated fairly.

{mosads}So if Trump wants to truly shake up the elite milieu of political bosses, media, lobbyists and others, he should demand they un-rig the debates and eliminate the capricious rule requiring a presidential candidate to have at least 15 percent in public opinion polls to qualify for the fall debates.

There are many good reasons for Trump to do this.

First, the debates are the personal fiefdom of the two political parties pirouetting under the lofty title of the Commission for Presidential Debates. Think more of the Commissar for Political Debates, with insider party potentates ruling. They are not interested in any competition from outsiders.

You cannot get any more elite than that.

Second, polls can be murky and manipulative. The 15 percent is an arbitrary number determined by the average of five polls that are chosen by insiders. A past member of the Commission, once-Vice Chairman Newton Minow, co-wrote a report recommending new criteria for debate participation no longer rely on the assessment of the pundits who do polls, whom he referred to as “an aristocracy of unelected analysts and observers.”

Third, Trump may benefit from the comparisons to Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Fourth, it is the democratic thing to do for a candidate professing to be for the people.

Eliminating the 15 percent polling metric would not open a floodgate to the debates. The Commission also requires a candidate must be constitutionally eligible to serve and appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote of 270 votes in the Electoral College needed to win the White House.

Even that rule gives elites a tight grip. Ballot access for each state is controlled by state legislatures — which, of course, are controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. They place significant obstacles in the path for third parties and independent candidates to get on ballots.

This year, the Green and Libertarian parties would make that cut, with the Constitution Party hoping to do so.

Most outside of Washington forget how the Commission strong-armed the debates away from the League of Women Voters, which resurrected presidential debates in 1976 (none had been held since Kennedy-Nixon in 1960). That year the League, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to citizen education, hosted three debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and one between their running mates, and sponsored debates in the 1980 and 1984 elections as well. The debates became part of the election process, but the League’s management style miffed party insiders who wanted more control of the process.

Republican David Norcross, who helped form the Commission, called the League’s debate organizers “too dictatorial” and criticized them for “ignoring or avoiding the politics of the whole situation.”

How ghastly, avoiding politics for a presidential debate. That seems somewhat democratic.

With that, the Commission on Presidential Debates came into existence, led by then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. and then-Republican National Committee Chairman Frank H. Fahrenkopf Jr. And Norcross’s concern about ignoring politics was satiated.

The only third-party candidate to participate in debates since then has been Ross Perot in 1992. But get this: In 1992, Perot was on almost all the ballots, yet polling 7 percent of the vote when it became time to issue invitations. The Commission refused to invite him but was overruled by the major party candidates, Republican President George H.W. Bush and then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D). Each felt Perot would hurt the other, so they told the Commission to include him.

So they did. Politics, you see, prevailed over rules.

The debates were the best-watched ever. Perot ended up finishing with 19 percent of the vote, the strongest third-party finish since Theodore Roosevelt — the former Republican president running on the Bull Moose Party ticket — in 1912.

Four years later, same situation. Perot again stood at 7 percent and wanted in. Ah, but this time now-President Clinton did not want Perot included (Republican nominee Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas did). Thus Perot was excluded after the Commission determined Perot’s 1996 campaign lacked a “realistic chance” of winning, citing, among other reasons, his decision to accept public campaign financing meant he would not be able to spend large sums of his own money as he had in 1992.

Now that seems democratic. Perot playing by the same rules as the other two, but excluded.

In contrast to that is the Minnesota governor’s race in 1998. Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party candidate, was at 7 percent in the polls. But he participated in the debates, which broadened his exposure and helped him to an unexpected victory.

Now that seems democratic.

When 2000 presidential debates loomed, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader was on all the ballots and drawing huge crowds who paid to attend his rallies. “Let Ralph Debate” was a common rally cry.

Those demands went unheeded. In fact, Nader was such an anathema that when Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) debated Vice President Al Gore at the University of Massachusetts in 2000, the Commission had Nader physically barred and threatened with arrest for attempting to watch the debate via livestream in a separate auditorium — not even in the debate hall. Who cares that Nader had a ticket that was purchased to permit entry to watch the livestream.

In Nader’s lawsuit against the Commission, it was revealed the Commission provided security with a “facebook” containing pictures of third-party candidates and their running mates, who were not to be allowed in.

Now that seems democratic.

Since it worked once, why not again? In 2012, when Democrat Barack Obama debated Republican nominee Mitt Romney at Hofstra University, the Green Party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala, were arrested for attempting to enter the debate grounds.

Stein is the Green Party nominee again this year.

Trump, you have talked about the election being rigged. Here is something you can do right now, before the first votes are cast. Un-rig the debate.

As for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, you talk about not being the establishment and of shattering glass ceilings. You can either follow your husband’s lead in 1992 and let third-party folks in or your husband’s lead in 1996, when he was ahead of the polls and fought against Ross Perot’s inclusion.

Okay, I will get out of the August heat now.

Squitieri is an award-winning reporter and communications veteran and an adjunct professor at American University and Washington and Jefferson College.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


Tags Al Gore Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Gary Johnson Hillary Clinton

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