Debating the presidential debates

The 2008 presidential debates were formalized and scheduled Thursday, sending party loyalists and political junkies scrambling to their calendars. But Bob Barr, Chuck Baldwin, Ted Weill, Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader weren’t among the millions fired up for the nationally televised contests.

Like those of 1996, 2000 and 2004, this year’s debates will be two-man shows: Republican vs. Democrat. None of the independent and minor-party candidates for president — including the five listed above — were invited to participate.

The debates between GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois will be put on by the Commission on Presidential Debates, identified on its Web site as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan” organization committed to providing “the best possible information to viewers and listeners.” In fact, the tax-exempt group is merely a front for the Republican and Democratic National Committees, and they structure the debates down to every last detail to protect their parties and their candidates from outside challengers.

The result is usually a stale affair in which the candidates get to give boilerplate sound bites and don’t have to worry about direct exchanges with one another.

Meanwhile, voters are purposely kept ignorant of other candidates who may be listed for president on their November ballot — people such as Mr. Barr (Libertarian Party), Mr. Baldwin (Constitution Party), Mr. Weill (Reform Party), Ms. McKinney (Green Party) and Mr. Nader (Independent).

Many of the country’s biggest challenges are rooted in the two-party control of every Legislature, every governor’s mansion, Congress and the White House. If more people were exposed to the views of third-party candidates — a notion that terrorizes both Democrats and Republicans — they might be inclined to punch the voting button for a newcomer who wants meaningful change, not just a change of names on a particular office door.

The presidential debates should be returned to the control of a legitimate nonpartisan organization. And the standard for debate participation should be simple: Any candidate appearing on enough state ballots to win the 270 Electoral College votes needed for elevation to the White House gets an invitation.

The voting public deserves the opportunity to hear all their choices for the most important job in the world.

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