Add up all the tit for tat in last night's presidential debate on the calculator that Dubya accused Al Gore of inventing and it sums up to one boring night. There were no zingers or even any memorable lines. "Fuzzy math" and "phony numbers"—a rhetorical tip o' the hat to Alan Keyes—annoys more than it inspires. But what can one expect in times so prosperous that Iowan Winifred Skinner, the old lady in the crowd that Gore singled out as having to spend hours each day collecting aluminum cans to pay for prescription drugs, was somehow able to make the trek from Iowa to Boston in a gas-hungry Winnebago?
Al Gore, the famed "smile, relax, attack, smile" man, worked hard not to annoy. Yet he did anyway, making faces and noises as Bush made his points. Dubya just can't seem to shake his college days. He replaced his frat-boy smirk with a cocaine sniffle, the likes of which I haven't seen since I worked for a construction foreman who plowed through powder at a Jean-Claud Killy pace.
Some might say the debate was substantive, since Bush and Gore bickered over their various policy proposals. But anyone who knows how D.C. works knows that Bush and Gore arguing over the minutia of legislative proposals is tantamount to two pre-schoolers playing a game of "What If." Such a game may consume the two candidates, but has little to no relevance at all in the adult world. The details of what they propose matter less than the general philosophy behind those proposals. And both candidates agree that what America needs is more federal government, although Bush would launder more of our tax money through the private sector.
If one has to score the debate, I say it's more appropriate to declare a loser than a winner: These are politicians, after all. I expect conventional wisdom to hold that Bush came up short, if only because challengers need to land more blows.
But the real losers are us taxpaying saps and occasional voters. We are not only paying for a chunk of this presidential election, but we are actually paying for at least one candidate—Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan—who we weren't even allowed to see in action. That two-party cartel, the Commission on Presidential Debates, acts as if its debate-throwing authority is inscribed in the Holy Constitution, rather than a product of its candidates cowering at the terms set by those brass-balled dames at the League of Women Voters in years past. It's particularly outrageous that taxpayer money supports these high-minded blather sessions while candidates from national parties are kept out. Two-thirds of the $2.5 million tab for last night's snooze session was covered by unregulated corporate soft money, an irony that neither soft-money-decrying candidate addressed. (Massachusetts taxpayers, who obviously have masochistic tendencies when it comes to politics anyway, picked up the remainder of the bill.)
It's self-evident why the two parties want to exclude competition. It's less easy to see why we let them get away with it. The standard B.S. is that candidates who have no chance of winning should be excluded. But it's precisely because these candidates can affect who wins that they are locked out. In the case of Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, "locked out" must be taken literally—he was not even allowed to enter an on-site viewing room for which he had secured a ticket.
Nader, who's fond of saying that they only difference between Bush and Gore is the speed at which they drop to their knees when corporate America enters the room, would have exposed Gore as a populist fraud. A true statist, Nader offers an agenda that is fairly consistent and actually excites many segments of the Democratic base. Buchanan would have offered pro-lifers someone they could cheer for and may have even pulled some populist-leaning Democrats away from Gore. Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne would have given those who really believe in a limited government someone to root for. Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin would have given devotees of Transcendental Meditation something to focus on (and probably thrown in a few attacks on Buchanan to boot).
Imagine what Nader would have said when Gore outlined his Democratic priorities as balancing the budget every year, paying down the national debt, and cutting taxes for middle class families and praised welfare reform. What might have Buchanan said about the abortion pill or how America must define its national interest? Browne might have offered a take on Medicare prescription drugs and Social Security lock boxes and surpluses that cut through Gore and Bush's bickering over their relatively minor differences. What if a bunch of presidential candidates had a chance to answer Jim Lehrer's question, "Should voters of this election…see this as a major choice of competing philosophies?"
That just might be worth tuning in for. Indeed, such a show might even produce some thoughts for Winnebago Winifred to ponder on her drive back to Iowa.