Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Debatable Democracy

by Matt Bai
The New York Times
January 2, 2008

On my flight back to Des Moines today, I read an interesting piece by my colleagues Michael Falcone and Sarah Wheaton about the upcoming debates in New Hampshire. It seems that both Fox and ABC have taken it upon themselves to winnow the field of candidates by excluding those who don’t seem viable at this point. Fox, for instance, is shutting out Ron Paul, despite his having reached fourth place in some recent New Hampshire polls and his having spent a truckload of money on ads in the state. (I swear, you can’t drive three miles in New Hampshire without hearing Ron Paul on the radio; he’s more overplayed than Fergie, albeit easier to listen to.) ABC has decided that if you don’t finish in the top four in Iowa, and you don’t reach five percent in New Hampshire or national polls, then you’re just cluttering up the stage and should watch at home like everyone else.

I understand the impulse here. Every four years, the campaigns, the media and even the voters complain that there are too many trivial candidates sucking up time in the debates. Last time around, there were calls to disinvite Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich; now it’s Duncan Hunter and Mike Gravel, who’s already been dinged from recent debates. The presence of these candidates does, in fact, devalue the debates, and we’d all be less annoyed if there were fewer candidates on both sides. The problem is, there aren’t, and that’s why I think the networks are wrong.

Almost 10 years ago now, I covered the election of Jesse Ventura to the governorship of Minnesota, which might just be my favorite of all the political stories I’ve chronicled. Mr. Ventura, an independent, started out that race as a typical gadfly, barely registering in the polls. But he participated in at least half a dozen televised debates, and every time he did, answering questions bluntly and candidly, his poll numbers rose. The lesson for me was that voters are pretty great at listening to candidates and deciding for themselves. The notion that a candidate is hopelessly peripheral and shouldn’t be allowed to state his case in a debate because not enough people have heard about him yet, or because 100,000 voters in Iowa didn’t like him, or because he hasn’t raised enough money, is not only presumptuous but also antithetical to democratic principles, which have nothing to do with polls or bank accounts.

My own view is that if you’re on enough actual primary ballots to conceivably get the nomination (or, in a general election, to conceivably win the share of the electoral college necessary to win), then you ought to be able to debate. Sure, it makes for some frustrating and unwieldy debates, and a lot of people will have to deploy the fast-forward buttons on their Tivo remotes, but it also leaves the power of decision in the hands of the voters, where it belongs.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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