Hempstead has long been a town divided in two. During the American Revolution, the municipality was split between the liberal “North Hempstead” and the Loyalist “South Hempstead.” The two-party spotlight returned to the 750,000 resident town on Tuesday, October 16, when President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took to the Hofstra University stage for a town hall debate.
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was in town, too. However, unlike the two major candidates, the Commission on Presidential Debates stopped her from stepping on the podium. Stein, along with running mate Cheri Honkala, protested the tightly organized primetime duel. She was soon taken into police custody, just as she expected.
Had any other third party candidate protested the Commission as Stein did in October, they likely would have been arrested as well. Since 1996, the bi-partisan commission has prevented third party presidential candidates – including Stein, Johnson and, in previous years, Ralph Nader and Ross Perot – from participating in major debates. The night after the Hempstead contest, staff members from The Nation magazine hosted a panel discussion at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium – located on 13th Street in Greenwich Village – urging Americans to support more ample policy debates.
Each of the panelists has been featured in The Nation, in one respect or another. Moderator Richard Kim is the magazine’s managing editor; Katrina vanden Heuvel is its publisher and editor-in-chief; Chris Hayes is an editor-at-large, as well as an MSNBC contributor; Ilyse Hogue is a political strategist and contributor, as is Columbia Law Professor Patricia J. Williams. Washington columnist John Nichols was also on the panel. He told the audience that he would have protested along with Stein, were it not for his article deadline.
“We don’t give people options,” Nichols said at the discussion. “Do you know who suffers most as a result of this? The Democratic and Republican nominees.”
Furthermore, policy arguments have often turned into one-liners, including those about women’s issues. Obama has boasted that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill he signed into law following his inauguration, while Romney has noted that, while only two of the ten highest-paid state officials were women when he became governor, that number rose to four by the time he left office.
“If Jill Stein or Gary Johnson had been in those debates, you would have forced Romney and Obama to say more,” added Nichols.
Both third party candidates have sued the Commission on Presidential Debates because they were unable to take part in major candidate face-offs. Johnson’s name will appear on every state ballot on November 6, except those in Michigan and Oklahoma; Stein’s will be seen in 38 states. Each argued that they are each on enough ballots to win the election, but are not being taken seriously as White House contenders.
“Nowhere does it say that only the Republican and the Democrat should be pitted against one another,” Johnson campaign counsel Alicia Dearn wrote in an October 19 statement. The non-partisan League of Women Voters helmed each presidential debate from 1976 to 1984. Yet when the Commission on Presidential Debates formed in 1987, Republicans and Democrats developed a contract detailing how their candidates’ debates would be run. All 14 League members objected and abandoned control of the debates.
“The demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” League President Nancy M. Neuman wrote in an October 3, 1988 statement, shortly following the surrender. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
Since the Commission gained control of the debates, only one third party candidate has participated in them – Perot. He joined presidential incumbent President George H.W. Bush and then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton on the stage. However, when Perot ran again in 1996, both Clinton and his opponent, Senator Bob Dole from Kansas, agreed to prevent third party candidates from debate involvement.
In most recent cases, audience members have played either a minor or heavily controlled role in presidential debates. Since 2004, spectators wishing to inquire about policy with either a Democratic or Republican candidate must write their questions on an index card for the moderator to see before asking. While audiences fuel town hall debates like the one in Hempstead, they hardly frame their content.
“We don’t need combative roundtables,” said Peter Rothberg, associate publisher for The Nation, who organized the panel discussion with The New School for Public Engagement. “We just need ideas that make sense, ones that can be unpacked at talks like these.”
The October 17 panel follows three similar collaborative events between The Nation and The New School. Past discussions include those on post 9/11 United States security policy and Occupy Wall Street.
“Both The Nation and The New School are committed to engaging the public on matters of public importance,” said David Scobey, Dean at The New School for Public Engagement. “Nothing could possibly be more important than this election.”