GOP Conspiracy Says Efforts to Open Debates A Ploy to Elect Democrats

Paul Bedard’s recent foray into the world of conjecture about an action of two FEC commissioners is far from the mark.

In a Washington Examiner piece, Bedard devised a theory out of whole cloth that the chair of the Federal Election Commission, Ann Ravel, and a fellow Democratic appointee, Ellen Weintraub, now support opening up the final fall presidential debates to a third candidate — purely as a way to ensure the victory of Hillary Clinton, or whomever the Democrats nominate.

It’s true, as we reported, that Ravel and Weintraub, in their July 29 statement and in their vote at an FEC meeting, are favorably inclined toward changing the rules that effectively exclude an independent. Bedard quotes their memo:

“At a time when an increasing number of Americans identify as independents, we should not be satisfied with regulations that may be preventing their points of view from being represented in public debate. At a minimum, we ought to engage with the public on this issue. It has been over twenty years since the Commission has taken a serious look at its rules on candidate debates. Such a re-examination is long overdue.”

But the spin Bedard puts on all this is that these two FEC Democrats were only inclined to change the debate rules because of their desire to split the vote between Donald Trump – in this scenario, running as an independent – and the Republican Party nominee.

A bit of due diligence about the details of the debate selection process may have prevented Bedard from spinning this tale. First, even if all six FEC commissioners had supported the need for a rule change, it’s virtually impossible for it to happen in time for the 2016 election. Second, Donald Trump doesn’t need special dispensation from the FEC to open the way into the 2016 debates. Trump’s way into the fall debates, either as a Republican or as an independent, already exists.

Three, the whole point of opening up the debates is to facilitate entry of a third candidate into the national debates that is more qualified to be president than Trump, but who starts with much lower name recognition.

Fourth, the irony of Bedard’s comments is that if the CPD (as opposed to the FEC) does change the rules in time for 2016, someone could run that’s helpful to the Republicans as opposed to the Democrats. The fact is it’s impossible to know which party will benefit from more competition. The only certainty is that the public will have greater choices than exist today if nothing changes.

The fact is that the Commission on Presidential Debates has constructed a system to keep independents out – completely contrary to the FEC’s own rules. The real conspiracy involves not the votes of Ravel and Weintraub to open a rulemaking but the votes of the other four FEC commissioners not to.

Party stalwarts on the CPD and the FEC love the system the way it is. The truth is that neither party wants a third competitor. Democrats and Republicans want to preserve their duopoly. An independent candidate would not have to be an extreme conservative who might draw votes from Republicans; that candidate could just as easily be a moderate or a liberal whom Democrats would find attractive.

The parties want to keep their duopoly, but American voters feel differently. That’s why nearly half of them identify as independents and why, by a two-to-one margin, they want the final fall debates opened up to a third person on the stage.

As for Trump: He is leading the polls as a Republican – he hit 30 percent, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll. He is 20 points ahead of his nearest challenger. He gets to participate in the Republican debates; he is building a campaign team in Iowa and in other primary states. It seems premature, to say the least, that he would drop his Republican affiliation and run as an independent.

Opening the Debates Would Encourage Great Americans to Run as Independents

So, I would take the FEC commissioners’ votes at face value. Neither they nor anyone else has any idea who would run as an independent if the CPD finally does its duty and opens the debates. The rise of both Trump and Bernie Sanders, as insurgent candidates, is certainly a manifestation of the unhappiness Americans feel toward the two parties. Open up the debates, and it’s a good bet that superb candidates – from business, academia, the non-profit sector, and the military, as well as from government – will emerge.

In the sort of national independent primary (called America’s Independent Primary, or AIP) proposed by a group of distinguished former officials and academics, a single independent would be chosen for the final fall debates. It is far from certain that Trump would be that candidate.

But imagine that the debates are opened up and Trump did decide to run as an independent. Opening the debates would encourage high-quality candidates across the spectrum to emerge, run, compete and beat Trump for the third spot in the debates. 

And Just for the Record

As a side note, the best analysis of the 1992 race (the last time a third candidate was in the debates), by Tim Hibbits in The Polling Report, found that Ross Perot did not throw the race to Bill Clinton, contrary to popular mythology:

“According to the exit poll data, 38% of the Perot voters said they would have voted for Clinton in a two-way race, 38% would have voted for Bush, 24% would not have voted. Perot won 30% of independents, 17% of Republicans, and 13% of Democrats. Put another way, of his 19% popular vote share, 8 percentage points came from independents, 6 from Republicans, and 5 from Democrats.”

The final vote tally in 1992: Clinton with 43%, Bush with 37%, and Perot 19%. By no stretch of the imagination would George H. W. Bush have won with Perot off the ballot.

Far from being a spoiler, an independent, even if he or she does not win, will be an enricher. The Republican and Democrat will have to compete for votes against the independent and will have to modify their views accordingly. The independent breaks the duopoly and permits real competition. That’s what this country wants and needs.

Editor’s note: This article originally published on Presidential Debate News, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN.