In fairness to CNN, invites based on opinion polls do have some theoretical appeal. Everyone is judged according to the same standard. Debate sponsors aren't seen as biased. And public opinion polls are a strong if imperfect indication of a candidate's viability. But the approach is flawed and ought to be abandoned for the same reason that it's foolhardy to implement zero tolerance policies in public schools, mandatory minimum sentencing in courts, or teacher evaluations that only consider standardized tests. In all these examples, decision-makers use inflexible policies to absolve themselves of the responsibility to make difficult judgements in close cases. As a result, obviously relevant factors are ignored and self-evidently absurd outcomes result.
What factors are being ignored in the New Hampshire debate? There's Gary Johnson's resume. Especially in an early primary debate, where many voters are meeting candidates for the first time as much as choosing between favorites, having been a successful two-term Republican governor in a Democratic majority state ought to count for something. Nowhere is that more true than New Hampshire, where a strong showing by a long shot candidate can mitigate disadvantages like low name recognition and an inability to fund-raise. Isn't that an important possibility to preserve in a process where so much depends on courting publicity and rich people?
The absurd outcome should concern other candidates who received invites. It's perfectly appropriate that Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman were contacted. But Donald Trump? Really? He decided against attending. But ponder this. The New Hampshire primary isn't until February of 2012. That's nine more months that voters have to get to know candidates! Is democracy best served by an early debate that includes a bombastic celebrity on the strength of his name recognition, and excludes a guy with eight years of executive experience because he spent more time governing than selling himself on reality TV?
Another problem with the CNN approach is that it permits the participation of politicians who aren't even formally running for president. I don't just mean pols like Michele Bachmann, who will participate despite the fact that she's neither declared nor set a date for an announcement. Or Sarah Palin, another invitee who won't make it, but could have if she wanted to take a break from her bus tour. CNN also invited Mitch Daniels and Mike Huckabee before they withdrew. Neither man will take the debate stage and make a mockery of the proceedings. But if they did, would CNN stick to its objective standards?
In theory, it's difficult to figure out who should be allowed in a presidential debate. It isn't always easier in practice, but I think that it is often easier, and this year shows why. I'd be hard pressed to articulate an overarching standard for who should get invites. But I'd suggest the general principle that the earlier the debate comes in the primary process, the bigger the tent should be -- you want to include every plausible contender who is earnestly serious about running.
By that standard, Gary Johnson would be included (and since other invitees aren't attending, we know there's room on the stage). So how about it CNN, WMUR, and the New Hampshire Union Leader? If you're looking to save face, just acknowledge that upon reflection Johnson meets the 2 percent threshold after factoring in the margin of error.
Image credit: Reuters