Gary Johnson's Pitch to the Commission on Presidential Debates

The Libertarian Party candidate wants a place on stage and has a plausible argument that he deserves one.

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When Gary Johnson was a GOP primary candidate, he watched in frustration as CNN invited an obviously unqualified Herman Cain onto the debate stage, even as it refused appeals from the former two-term New Mexico governor to take part or even to be included in the polls used to determine eligibility.

Now that Governor Johnson is the Libertarian Party presidential nominee, he has a similar problem but a different foe. The Commission on Presidential Debates doesn't want to extend him an invitation. In an open letter to the organization, he's trying to persuade them to change their minds. The third of voters who are loyal to neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party deserve to have at least some representation during the televised presidential debates, he argues.

Says Johnson:

I understand that there are a great many "third party" candidates, and that a line must be drawn somewhere. However, the simple reality of our Electoral College system draws that line in a very straightforward and fair way - a reality that is reflected in your existing criteria. If a candidate is not on the ballot in a sufficient number of states to be elected by the Electoral College, it is perfectly logical to not include that candidate in a national debate. If, on other hand, a candidate IS on the ballot in enough states to be elected, there is no logic by which that candidate should be excluded. Nowhere in the Constitution or in law is it written that our President must be a Democrat or a Republican. However, it IS written that a candidate must receive a majority of the votes - or at least 50% - cast by electors, and that any candidate who does so, and otherwise meets the Constitution's requirements, may be President.

One virtue of the standard that Johnson suggests is the relative difficulty of abusing it. For example, say that one of the co-chairmen of the Commission on Presidential Debates had a clear bias in favor of the two-party system. Maybe as a young man he was a county chairman for the Young Republicans, later became a member of the Republican National Committee, and even spent time as chairman of the RNC. Maybe he was its longest serving chairman of the 20th century.

You know, just hypothetically.

You can see how third-party candidates would feel better about their chances if instead of arbitrary criteria tied to opinion polls, there were unchanging standards grounded in Constitutional requirements.

Says Johnson:

Requiring a certain level of approval in the polls has nothing to do with fitness to serve, experience, or credibility as a potential President. Rather, it has everything to do with the hundreds of millions of dollars available to and spent by the two major party candidates, the self-fulfilling bias of the news media against the viability of third party candidates, and an ill-founded belief that past dominance of the Republican and Democrat Parties should somehow be a template for the future.

The argument against Johnson: He has no chance of winning, and any time he spent on stage answering questions would be less time for the public to better assess the two viable presidential candidates.

Personally, I don't think Johnson would win even if he were included in the debates. But rather than detracting from the public's ability to evaluate Obama and Romney, I think his presence would force the Republican and the Democrat to address a broader array of important issues, confronting questions that no one within the bipartisan system has an incentive to raise.

I happen to like Johnson and many of his policy stances, but even if he weren't around I'd prefer a debate that included a Green Party candidate or some other alternative voice to broaden the conversation. I wonder what would happen if the Commission on Presidential Debates hosted a third-party debate, then included the candidate deemed by viewers to be the winner in the eventual meetings between the Democratic and Republican nominees for president.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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