Third party debate: Ready for prime time?

Presidential candidates debate Oct. 23 in Chicago. From left: Jill Stein, Rocky Anderson, Virgil Goode and Gary Johnson.
Scott Olson

BOCA RATON, Fla. — For a glimpse of what politics could be if it were divorced from big money, special interests, and televised reality, there are few venues more instructive than the debate between the third party candidates held on Tuesday evening in Chicago.

Hosted by the Free and Equal Election Foundation and moderated by the venerable Larry King, the debate brought four presidential no-hopers together to discuss the issues that have been ignored by the major parties.

The quartet — Jill Stein, Rocky Anderson, Virgil Goode and Gary Johnson — had hoped to take part in the debates between the major party candidates, but were all excluded. On Tuesday they hoped to give the American public a taste of true freedom of ideas and expression, unfettered by the constraints of big party politics.

The results were surprising and refreshing, although unlikely to change the dynamics of the larger race in any significant way.

The major issues discussed included drug legalization, repeal of the Patriot Act, cessation of drone strikes, the believed erosion of civil liberties under the National Defense Authorization Act, the corrosive effect of big money in politics, and term limits for the House and Senate.

Stein, who ran against Mitt Romney for the governorship of Massachusetts in 2002, was there for the Green Party. She spoke forcefully and passionately about the NDAA, which gives the president the right to detain US citizens indefinitely on suspicion of terrorism.

“This is an outrage, a betrayal,” she said. “It gives the president dictatorial powers.” The other candidates agreed.

Stein also wants to legalize marijuana, which, she said in her capacity as a physician, is no more dangerous than alcohol.

Anderson was the mayor of Salt Lake City from 2000 to 2008, and is a well-known progressive now campaigning for the Justice Party. He championed an Equal Rights Amendment that would provide protection for women and sexual minorities. He also supports the legalization of marijuana as a move to stop the “catastrophic” war on drugs.

Virgil Goode was a congressman from Virginia from 1997 to 2009, first as a Democrat, then as a Republican. He is now the nominee from his very own Constitution Party, and opposed almost everything the others stood for. He wants to restrict immigration severely until employment drops below 5 percent, opposes legalization of any drugs, wants to stop all funding for Planned Parenthood, and would not take a dime away from defense.

His campaigning style was unusual in the extreme. Any time a liberal cause came up, he would shake his head and say, “vote for someone else.”

Gary Johnson is perhaps the best-known of the four. He was governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, as a Republican in a largely Democratic state. He is now representing the Libertarian Party and is, he says, “pro-choice on everything.”

Johnson would like to eliminate income tax, abolish the Internal Revenue Service, and handle raising revenue by imposing a “fair tax.”

The debate was not shown on cable or major networks; it was carried by Al Jazeera English, by Russia Today, and by Ora TV, an on-demand digital outlet that carries "Larry King Now." It was also live-streamed by YouTube.

The candidates were a bit disgruntled that they were not allowed to get their message out to a wider audience. In the pre-debate discussion, Anderson railed against the “plutocracy” that was destroying Democracy.

“We need a government of, by and for the people,” he said.

Gary Johnson complained about being excluded from the wider political arena; he had filed suit against the Commission on Presidential Debates, claiming that he had a right to be included in Monday’s meeting between Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in Boca Raton.

“Where is the voice for the fastest-growing segment of American politics today?” Johnson said. “That is the liberty movement.”

Stein described being handcuffed and “tied to a chair for eight hours” in the wake of her failed attempt to gain entry to the debate between President Obama and Romney at Hofstra University on Oct. 16.

Not all of the alternative candidates will be on the ballots in all states. Johnson's name will appear on the ballots of 48 states plus the District of Columbia. Stein will be on 38 state ballots, Goode on 28, and Anderson on 18.

They have no chance of winning, and little chance of making a big dent in the political psyche. Opinions differ on whether any of the candidates could pull enough votes from the two major candidates to affect results in any significant way. The political ghosts of Ralph Nader, who may have played the spoiler in 2000, or Ross Perot, who caused a ruckus in 1992, still haunt political historians.

The biggest draw for Tuesday’s event was probably Larry King. He kicked things off by saying that he believed the event was “a noble cause.”

“All voices should be heard,” he said.

But King did little but play the role of timekeeper, a task he did ruthlessly and well. He seemed a bit disengaged at times, as when he forgot to ask the candidates for opening statements, plunging directly into the first question.

“There were no opening statements in my notes,” he said a bit defensively, although he himself had described the format not five minutes before.

He did have some encouraging words for the candidates at the end, though.

“You’re all Don Quixotes in a way,” said King, “but the windmills have a way of stopping and we have a way of saluting you just for getting into the fray.”

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