Challenging the Duopoly
Ever so briefly during the 2016 presidential campaign, Peter Ackerman and his band of reformers believed their time had come. Those hopes proved fleeting, but Ackerman and his rebels are in for the long haul. Despite apocalyptic predictions by those who’d lost their heads over the Trump phenomenon, Ackerman knows there are other elections in America’s future. He just wants them conducted differently.
A billionaire financier who has taken aim at the two major political parties’ stranglehold on the U.S. election process, Ackerman has long maintained that the first step in fixing Washington’s dysfunctional politics would be painless: opening up the presidential debates to a qualified independent. The barrier, as he and his allies see it, is the Commission on Presidential Debates, which they believe exists mainly to protect the existing Democratic-Republican duopoly.
The 2016 presidential general election certainly made the case that changing business-as-usual might be a good thing. With two historically unpopular nominees waging mostly negative campaigns in a country in which 43 percent of voters prefer to remain unaligned, surely this was the year that the CPD would be shamed into opening up the debates to a qualified independent candidate.
It didn’t happen, as those who watched the nasty and singularly unenlightening presidential debates will remember. Targeting the Commission on Presidential Debates, however, seems like going after the Girl Scouts. Chartered in 1987 as a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., the commission was designed to ensure that the major presidential candidates actually face each other in debates. The CPD has now sponsored debates in the last eight presidential elections—all without using taxpayers’ money. It’s an obvious success story, right? Well, maybe.
The first televised presidential debates took place between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Many people believe the 1960 debates started a trend, but this isn’t what happened. They were sporadic. No debates in 1964, 1968 or 1972, and then disorder in 1980, when Jimmy Carter abruptly pulled out of the first debate after the League of Women Voters invited independent candidate John Anderson to join the incumbent president and Ronald Reagan in Baltimore. The League’s criterion was 15 percent support in the polls, and Anderson, a moderate former Republican congressman, just made the threshold.
Carter looked wimpy for not showing up that night and got his clock cleaned by Reagan in a subsequent debate held without Anderson. In 1984, Reagan debated Walter Mondale—but he could have skipped it and still won—and about that time two studies found that debates increased voter awareness of the candidates and issues, and recommended that the two parties adopt a mechanism that would make them a permanent feature of presidential campaigns.
Democratic Party Chairman Paul Kirk and Republican counterpart Frank Fahrenkopf embraced the report and brought the commission into existence. This sounds like the very definition of good government—if you’re a devotee of the two-party system. The commission insists it’s “nonpartisan,” but really, it’s “bipartisan,” the word Fox News anchorman Chris Wallace used inadvertently at the outset of the Las Vegas debate between Hillary and The Donald. You remember, that dignified event at which Clinton called Trump a racist and he salted the crowd with women who said Bill Clinton had sexually assaulted them.
It’s a stretch to blame the debate commission for this behavior, but it’s instructive to recall that the most substantive presidential debates in recent political history took place when Ross Perot was admitted as a third-party candidate who stressed fiscal probity in government. “If Ross Perot is not in those debates, [Congress] never would have balanced the budget,” former Rep. Chris Shays noted at a small strategizing lunch last week hosted by Peter Ackerman.
It’s also instructive to recall that Perot hadn’t met the debate commission’s threshold when he was invited to debate Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush—the Texas billionaire was still below 15 percent in the polls. “He was only invited to the 1992 debates at the request of the Bush and Clinton campaigns, which feared a backlash if they didn’t open up the process,” noted Kansas independent Greg Orman. “The upshot—and it’s not unintentional—is that the 15 percent rule locks out anyone but the nominees of the two major parties.”
For the most part, members of the debate commission believe that a viable national candidate should be able to reach 15 percent and that those blaming the commission for the lousy choice this year are looking at the wrong culprit. “If ever there were a political environment where an independent candidate could emerge and get traction, 2016 was the perfect storm,” Mike McCurry said Friday morning. “The truth is that independents will have to get serious, get organized and mobilize if they want to advance a third candidate in a national campaign, and they failed to do that in 2016.”
McCurry, a former White House press secretary for Bill Clinton, is being polite here. There was an obvious a two-word rebuttal to the duopoly’s critics last year and that those words are “Gary” and “Johnson.” He was the Libertarian candidate who didn’t know the word “Aleppo,” couldn’t name a world leader he admired, and acted as though running for president was a lark.
The rebuttal to Gary Johnson is Jesse Ventura, who hadn’t broken double digits when he was allowed into Minnesota’s 1998 gubernatorial debates. Ventura ended up winning the election in a three-man race. It seems inconceivable that Johnson and his running mate, respected former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, could have pulled that off; but a big part of the Libertarian Party’s problem was that their ticket was upside down.
A presidential elections is a tough way to challenge the duopoly anyway. Greg Orman has a better idea: elect a handful of independent-minded men and women to the U.S. Senate. Because the Republican edge in the Senate is narrow, six or seven truly independent senators would have enormous clout. Although Orman lost his 2014 bid, he’s busily recruiting other Senate candidates across the country.
There are four basic theories on challenging the duopoly. The Ackerman-Orman approach—electing independents—is one. Forming a true third political party is the second. Another emphasis is tweaking election rules in ways that produce more responsible candidates. These efforts range from California’s “jungle” primaries to “ranked choice” voting—recently adopted in Maine—in which voters rank their top three candidates in order. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the least “first choice” votes is eliminated.
The fourth approach is simply encouraging (or shaming) elected officials to behave better once in office. The main effort in this regard is the No Labels movement headed by Nancy Jacobson. For the most part, these groups have been polite, if a tad condescending toward the others. That’s changing. The 2016 election tended to concentrate the minds of would-be reformers.
“The political reform community is divided between those who want to create higher-functioning Democrats and Republicans and those who want to create a new source of supply by breaking down barriers that the duopoly has erected,” says Orman. “As our political culture has continued to erode, those groups seem to be moving closer together in support of fundamental change.”
When Ackerman ran into Jacobson at a No Labels function recently, he put it this way. “Nancy, I think my way is the most effective, but you could prove me wrong and make me the happiest man in the world.”