With an estimated 60 million viewers expected to bask in the blue light of the televised presidential debates Tuesday night, a group of students at UC Berkeley voiced their frustration with a process that left Green Party candidate Ralph Nader out of the national limelight.
“Without Nader, the debates are a big advertisement for two corporate-sponsored candidates,” said freshman Abe Gardner, standing in the noonday sun at Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus surrounded by 20 other activists and Green Party members.
Chanting “Let Ralph debate!,” and carrying signs denouncing a “two party duopoly,” the advocates criticized recent regulations drawn up by the Commission on Presidential Debates that require third party candidates to poll at 15 percent of the vote to be included in the presidential debates.
“If the 15 percent rule had applied in 1992, Perot wouldn’t have been allowed to debate,” said Jacob Sprunck, who painted his pectorals in red and white “blushes for democracy” for the demonstration. “We need to bring it back to the ’92 standards and allow credible third parties to be in the debates.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates was launched in 1987 by then-national chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk. Formerly sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the presidential debates, and consequently the CPD, fell into Democrat and Republican hands in 1988. At that time, the New York Times reportedly quoted Kirk as saying, “As a party chairman, it’s my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system.”
The commission, still governed by Fahrenkopf and Kirk today, then raised the bar for third party perception in the debates to 15 percent of the vote.
Today, with the Green Party on the ballot in 46 states, the Gallup polls show Nader holding a steady four percent of the national vote. So Nader falls well short of the CPD requirements.
Participation in the debates, claim Nader supporters, will open the possibility of increasing support for the Green Party candidate, whom they call a veteran debater.
“This guy comes at you like a lawyer. He’d tear into Bush and be more than a match for Gore. But these guys are afraid of him, and would never let him into the debates,” said Gardner.
Snehal Shingavi, a graduate student in English agreed. “Major party candidates assume that business as usual works, and Nader has the ability to open the debate to a wider field of issues. We only hear the opinions of one corporate monster with two heads.”
Protesters also directed their anger at debate sponsor Anheuser-Busch and poured cans of Budweiser down a public drain.
“It shows the corporate nature of these debates,” said Gardner, “It’s not democracy, it’s capitalism. In fact, when you have big money influencing politics, it’s more like corporate feudalism. No one but Nader is willing to talk about the corporate nature of these debates.”
At stake in the upcoming elections is a critical 1 percent of the voting public, say Nader advocates. Nader needs 5 percent of the national vote to qualify the Green Party for $13 million in governmental campaign funds in 2004.
Rallies like Tuesday’s are part of a national movement to get that final percentage point, Gardener says.
“With California considered a “safe” state for Gore, where Democrats could possibly win by over 10 percent,” said Gardner. “People shouldn’t worry about ‘throwing their vote away.’ The winner here will get all of the state’s votes, regardless of whether Gore wins by 1 percent or ten. But that margin can add up to 1 percent nationally for Nader, and put the Green Party over 5 percent nationally. So a vote for Nader is not a vote against Gore. It means that there will a credible Third Party in 2004,” Gardner said.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington, a Gore supporter, showed up at the rally to fuel the civic process. “Most people in Berkeley have more in common with Nader than either of the two party candidates,” he told the crowd, speaking through a bullhorn under the shadow of Sather Gate.
Worthington offered this explanation to the Daily Planet for seeming to cross party lines.
“Nader will inspire more people to vote, and even if that works against Gore, it will help in other areas – governor races, congressional races - most of those votes will be for Democratic candidates and 1 percent of the vote could put Democrats back in power in the House,” he said.
Third Party candidates could increase interest in the elections. According to Jeff Cohen, the founder of New York-based media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the 1992 debates, which included Ross Perot, attracted a record breaking 90 million viewers. In 1996, however, the post-CPD debates which excluded Perot on the 15 percent rule, averaged only 41 million viewers.
“I’m not going to watch the debates.” said Gardener. “There will be no surprises in the presidential debates,” he said. “People’ll hear that Gore is a good debater and Bush has a bunch of one-liners. If Nader were there, I’d watch. There would be something to look forward to.”