Opening the debates up to Gary Johnson and Bill Weld

2016-05-28_11.53.31.jpgThe Commission on Presidential Debates has been explicitly organized by the two major political parties to keep viable alternatives — including Libertarian Party candidate Gov. Gary Johnson and running mate Gov. Bill Weld — off the podium.

The CPD may seem like a government agency. It is instead a private charity under 501(c)(3) of the tax code that may not “endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or political parties.”

And yet the CPD endorses the bipartisan system, and it opposes other political parties. When 42 percent of the population tells Gallup that it identifies as independent, that’s a problem.

Today, Johnson and Weld are surging. According to a national Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, the ticket is at 13 percent nationally. That’s within the margin of error for obtaining the CPD’s arbitrary 15 percent threshold for being on the debate stage.

Johnson and Weld are already polling at 23 percent in Utah. Here and in New Mexico, Johnson's home state, the presidential race already is a competitive three-way contest.

By donning the "Commission" name, the CPD is mythmaking. Its website references the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates and the presidential debates of 1976, 1980 and 1984 — as if it had anything to do with them!

Let's go back to the year before the Kennedy-Nixon debates. At the time, as well as today, federal communication law required broadcasters hosting any candidates also provide equal time "to all other such candidates for that office."

The Federal Communications Commission interpreted this to mean that a station broadcasting the Chicago mayor’s official government functions needed to give equal time to a rival candidate. Congress responded in 1960 by excluding "bona fide newscasts," but not debates, from the law.

Perhaps most importantly, Congress suspended the whole section for the duration of the 1960 presidential contest. Why? To permit the "great" debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon! Each of the four was sponsored by a leading broadcaster.

There were no presidential debates again until 1976. That's when the League of Women Voters, a truly nonpartisan effort — not a bipartisan effort — stepped into the breach.

That organization did include candidates outside the two main parties. After it invited Gov. Ronald Reagan, Rep. John Anderson and President Jimmy Carter to debate in 1980, Carter refused to participate with Anderson. So there was one debate with Anderson and Reagan, and then another debate with Reagan and Carter.

After the 1984 debates, Republicans and Democrats sensed an opportunity to close out political rivals. The chairmen of those two parties teamed up to create the CPD, which has hosted the debates from 1988 onward.

Ross Perot managed to get a third seat at the CPD's 1992 debate — but he’s the exception that proves the CPD’s rule. Indeed, Perot ultimately won 18.7 percent of the popular vote in the election. But at the time of the debates, Perot was polling between 7 and 9 percent.

Johnson-Weld is above that level. The ticket is in double digits in 42 states, with 15 percentage points or higher in 15 states.

The CPD website claims its primary purpose is to "provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners." In a year in which the Republican and Democratic nominees are wildly unpopular — and may not represent sizable portions of their own political parties — providing the “best possible information” needs to include Gary Johnson, who will be on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Indeed, 62 percent of Americans have already told pollsters they want Gary Johnson in the CPD debates. The growing list of prominent individuals and newspapers calling for Johnson and Weld to be included in the debates includes Mitt Romney, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and the Chicago Tribune and Boston Herald.

At least four major newspapers — including the Richmond Times Dispatch and the New Hampshire Union-Leader — have endorsed the Johnson-Weld ticket outright. That’s four more than Donald Trump and nearly as many as Hillary Clinton.

Gary Johnson and Bill Weld are decent and principled politicians, with experience governing as Republicans in Democratic states. They bring the kind of reason and experience that America needs now in the White House.

As I’ve had a chance to work with Gary over the past several months, I’ve observed his humility and frugality and how well-suited his character is for the presidency. I’m fully confident that, if he and Bill Weld are able to overcome the hurdle imposed by the CPD, Americans will come to see and share the view that there is another, better option in the presidential race.

Utah needs to stand up for Johnson-Weld and insist that on Sept. 26, the CPD respect American voters and #letgarydebate.

This column, "Opening the debates up to Gary Johnson and Bill Weld," originally appeared in the Deseret News on August 16, 2016.

Drew Clark is working with the Johnson-Weld campaign for president and vice president. An attorney specializing in telecom, media and technology, he is on leave of absence from his weekly column. Connect on Twitter @drewclark or www.drewclark.com.

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