Logistical Nightmare: Third Party Debates in Political Outer Space

Barack Obama and John McCain had a hard enough time nailing down the terms of their three official debates. How about getting a gaggle of third-party candidates to even appear on the same stage for one?


It’s pretty much impossible.

Last Wednesday, a group called Free and Equal Elections (www.freeandequal.org) announced that it would be hosting a debate the following Sunday at Columbia University, to be moderated by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and broadcast live on CSPAN. A Times blog post said that Ralph Nader, the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney, and Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party had all committed to participate. Student tickets for the event vanished within a day of becoming available.

But on Friday, the Columbia Political Union e-mailed would-be attendees that the debate was off: Several candidates had balked.

“Unfortunately, the nature of planning large-scale events with multiple participants, who at times have competing interests, is that nothing is ever set in stone until the very last moment,” the e-mail read.

Since then, third-party blogs and the campaigns themselves have buzzed with allegations about who screwed up when, in a parable of the problems with organizing people who, almost by definition, avoid organization.

The McKinney campaign says they never planned to participate—the Times article may have been confusing the Columbia event with an online debate coordinated weeks earlier by www.breakthematrix.com, a group that also promotes third-party access. Trevor Lyman, the man behind Break the Matrix as well as last November’s $4.2 million “money bomb” fund-raiser for Ron Paul, said that his group had decided to coordinate with Free and Equal when they proposed an in-person debate but backed out when it became clear that none of the candidates had really signed on.

Rosa Clemente, McKinney’s vice presidential nominee, had doubts about Free and Equal, given that leader Christina Tobin is also the national ballot access and get-out-the-vote coordinator for the Nader campaign. Tobin, who according to a colleague comes from a “staunch Libertarian family,” says that she has worked for four different minor parties over 12 years, and claimed to be nonpartisan.

But Clemente had other problems with the Columbia plan, saying it would have been “inappropriate” for McKinney to debate at a university that “is expanding and evicting black and Latino people literally every day.” And she alleged more nefarious motives behind the inability of candidates to get down to debate.

“There’s an element of sexism and racism. All those candidates are white men that are running,” Clemente said. “Cynthia will debate anyone anywhere as long as people will respect her.”

As for the Libertarians—a campaign spokesman said that the invitation was sent out too late for candidate Bob Barr, who is campaigning in Virginia and Ohio, to make it up north. Meanwhile, Barr has been doing his own virtual debates by TIVO-ing the Democrat-Republican debates and pausing them to present his rebuttals. But getting on a stage with other minor parties?

"It’s always been a campaign position to debate anyone anywhere as long as the debate would have an impact on national politics," said spokesman Andrew Davis.

Trevor Lyman doesn’t think Barr’s debate-in-a-vacuum model is the way to go–“It accepts the exclusion,” he said. Instead, third parties should create an “alternate league,” like baseball and football.

“You don’t’ have to go through their channel or try to include you, you just bypass them,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Tobin has rescheduled the debate for next Thursday in Washington, D.C., and plans to announce the participating candidates on Tuesday. All candidates who “qualified for enough state ballot lines to be eligible to win the presidency” are invited. As before, the Nader campaign is on board—and this time is challenging John McCain to show up.

“It would be a gamble, but he’s already proven on a couple of occasions that he’s not averse to taking gambles,” said Toby Heaps, a Nader spokesman. “With less than two weeks to go, the chips are definitely down in the McCain campaign, and this might not be a bad time to roll the dice.”

Logistical Nightmare: Third Party Debates in Political Outer Space