On October 6, 2004
, Cornell University
, in Ithaca, New York
hosted a debate among third party
candidates for the American presidency
. I was there and took notes, on the basis of which I'll try to reconstruct the content of the debate. This should certainly not be taken as a word-for-word transcription, but rather an attempt to paint an impressionistic portrait of the themes and content. If you want a more accurate view of the debate, it was filmed by several media outlets, including C-SPAN
, which plans to broadcast it at some yet-indeterminate future point.
The debaters were, sitting in nice but unimposing wooden chairs on an auditorium stage, from left to right, Michael Peroutka of the Constitution Party, David Cobb of the Green Party, Walt Brown of the Socialist Party, and Michael Badnarik of the Libertarian Party. Ralph Nader, running as an independent, was invited to the debate but declined to participate, though he gave an address in an Ithaca theater the following day.
The moderator was the well-liked government professor Theodore Lowi, Cornell's John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, known for his (arguably Pollyannaish) third party boosterism. Under the rules of the debate, each candidate would, in order from left to right, come to a podium and deliver a three minute introductory speech. Afterwards, members of the audience would offer questions which the candidates would answer in turn as they saw fit. While Lowi did not set formal time limits for this portion, he proved judicious in cutting off candidates when necessary. The debate began at 8 PM, and as it neared 9:30, the question and answer phase would end and candidates would deliver brief closing statements in order from right to left.
Peroutka: The theme of my campaign is "God, Family, Republic". God is implicit in the true American view of liberty, government, and society. I will protect the family by opposing gay marriage, and possibly gayness in general (I wasn't clear on the euphemism here. -ed). It's important to note that our nation operates under a republican, rather than democratic, system of government, as acknowledged in the Pledge of Allegiance. We need to return to constitutional government.
Cobb: The Green Party is growing, in spite of a hostile political climate. This is because only the Greens will tell you the truth. Truths we will tell include that we are facing a severe ecological crisis; that the American system is racist, sexist, and class-oppressive; that our system is not a democracy, but should be - a social democracy, in particular; that we live under corporate rule, which is bad; that we are in a war for oil and need to withdraw from Iraq; that healthcare is a human right and should be provided by the government; that a "living wage" is important. Peace. (His actual closing line, accompanied by the standard fingers-in-a-V peace sign.)
Brown: I have three parts to my remarks. First, in response to Peroutka's "God, Family, Republic" theme, I will assert my religious credentials by citing such underwhelming personal history as my attendance at Unitarian services when young, my marriage in a church, and the presence of a priest at my late wife's recent funeral. In a much more agile move, I will also note that the Pledge of Allegiance was, in fact, composed by the Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy. Second, I will make some shoutouts and then offer a rambling personal history which offers little insight. I was injured in World War II, have the record for most hours of pro bono law work in Oregon, and run a tree farm. Third, I will finally start to talk about my party. We're part of a worldwide movement for complete democracy. Socialism has strong Christian roots, which I would elaborate on further but for the fact that I am cut off for running drastically over time.
Badnarik: Because our name is "libertarian", people sometimes think we're liberals. (who are these people? -ed) We are liberal on some issues, and conservative on others. The desire for liberty, which is about making your own decisions, can be seen in the process of leaving home for college, a comparison which probably hits well with the audience but risks associating this conception of liberty with the bacchanalian libertinism of young adulthood more than the transcriber would prefer. Don't vote for the lesser of two evils, for that, truly, is a wasted vote.
Lowi: Congratulations to the Libertarians for being the only party to stay within the time limit.
Question and Answer
Question 1 - What should we do about the war on terror?
Peroutka: The war in Iraq is illegitimate and unconstitutional, and we should pull out with all possible speed.
Cobb: The US is sponsoring harsh corporate rule, causing terror and inspiring it in return. Also, sustainable fuels would help.
Brown: It would be a good step to find out why they don't like us. What is our relationship with Saudi Arabia, and how has this led Saudi Arabian dissidents to target America? Also, the US should stop committing its own acts of terror.
Badnarik: National defense is a legitimate function of the government, but we're currently practicing international offense on a global scale. Our actions abroad are in many ways counterproductive, and we should bring troops back from overseas bases and missions.
Question 2 - What do you think about a system which would allow candidates to decline private financing in favor of state funds?
Cobb: I unequivocally support public financing of campaigns. Corporate donors expect quid pro quos, and private financing is in fact legalized bribery.
Badnarik: Our analysis focuses on individual rights, among which that to political speech is vital. No limits should be placed on individual contributions, but corporations have proved more interested in access-buying than actually promoting favored political ideas and should not donate.
Lowi: But wouldn't that violate your principles of individual freedom, given corporations' standing as legal persons?
Badnarik: That's the result of poor interpretation of the law.
Peroutka: By reducing the role of the fedral government and constraining it to constitutionally authorized activity, we can eliminate the centralized power that inspires bribery attempts.
Question 3 - You're all white, male, and upper or middle class - how would you represent other citizens not sharing these identities?
Cobb: We have a racist, sexist system in this country. I'm not upper or middle class, but in fact a lifetime member of the working poor. In the Green Party, men deal with sexism and white people with racism. I've spoken strongly in favor of a female Green presidential candidate in 2008.
Peroutka: We need to eliminate "reverse racism". There is only one race that matters - human.
Brown: The Socialist Party has historically had a strong female presence on national tickets. For example, my vice presidential candidate (Mary-Alice Herbert -ed) and several historical candidates and female socialist notables I will now recall from memory.
Badnarik: Our individual rights approach is universal, applying to all regardless of any such identities.
Question 4 - What direction would you take for national energy policy?
Cobb: We have the capacity for sustainable power, but we aren't using it, somehow because of corporations. Vote Green.
Brown: We were doing something with subterranean tubes in the desert, but during the Clinton administration we filled them with concrete and now the Australians are doing it. I know this because my brother was closely involved in the project.
Badnarik: A lot of the problems with our current energy situation arise from government subsidies for oil and oil-consuming activities, which understate the true cost of oil and thus encourage its excessive use. We should withdraw these subsidies. In the short term, oil prices will rise, so we should withdraw gradually to maintain stability, but ultimately a proper valuation of the cost of oil will spur the switch to and development of other systems.
Peroutka: There's no constitutional role for the national government in energy policy. Well, maybe as part of providing for the common defense, but mostly not. I agree that the solution must be market-oriented.
Question 5 - Instant runoff voting, what do you think? Why haven't third parties banded together in support of changes in the voting system?
Peroutka: I learned about IRV earlier today from Cobb. It sounds good.
Cobb: We're participants, not spoilers. IRV is a good idea, and for the benefit of the audience, I will describe it and its effects.
Lowi: Good job!
Brown: We're in favor. Socialists have a long tradition of pushing for greater power to the electorate, as seen in our historical leadership on issues like recall elections and referendums.
Badnarik: It's a good system, though I prefer approval voting. Make sure to vote for the candidate of your choice.
Question 6 - How will you fight poverty and urban decline?
Peroutka Welfare is unconstitutional and pretty messed up besides. This isn't a duty for the national government, but rather individual and nonprofit charity.
Cobb: The existing system was created in reaction to the failings of a previous system relying on private charity. By getting more money from the rich, or corporations, or cuts in defense spending, we'll fix things.
Brown: The Constitution dedicates the government to the general welfare, not corporate welfare. We've always supported entitlement programs. We'll maintain Social Security, even reverse recent increases in retirement age, by removing the upper limit on salary subject to the payroll taxes that fund it.
Badnarik: To make people not poor, they have to get more money. The government is parasitic on society, and drains money from it.
Question 7 - What do you think of the idea of the right to organize as a fundamental right?
Cobb: We embrace it. Let's repeal the Taft-Hartley "Slave" Labor Act and return to the Wagner Act. We should withdraw from NAFTA and the WTO. Small business, rather than large corporations, is the true power of the American economy.
Brown: Labor is central to the Socialist Party. We support inserting provisions in international trade agreements to protect bargaining rights abroad.
Badnarik: We support them, as a subset of freedom of association. However, as we are opposed to the use of force, we do not support strike tactics by which picketers physically prevent non-participating workers from going to work if they so choose.
Question 8 - What is the relative importance of local and national elections for third parties?
Peroutka: It's hard work to operate a third party.
Cobb: The Green Party is growing. Our base is at the local level, though we run a presidential candidate to support candidates in down-ballot races and to take advantage of publicity events like this one.
Brown: Local work is our strength. You need to build from the ground up. We're strong in Wisconsin.
Badnarik: We run national ticket candidates to draw media attention, and for the benefit to down-ballot candidates.
Question 9 - The USA PATRIOT Act - WTF? Please join me in disliking it.
Peroutka: Sure will. As Benjamin Franklin said, he that would sacrifice essential liberties to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither. The PATRIOT Act was kept waiting in the wings for a while, and its sponsors used 9/11 as a pretext.
Cobb: I think we're all against it. We support local nullification, encouraging local laws denying support for enforcement, or even making it a crime for figures like librarians or clerks to cooperate with demands made under the Act.
Brown: Though I am a lawyer, John Ashcroft is a bad lawyer. Here are some other historical lawyers in government who have been bad, including Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
Badnarik: the PATRIOT Act was the most egregiously unconstitutional piece of legislation since the Alien and Sedition Acts. We should indict the legislators who passed this law, and Ashcroft for executing it. Also, what the hell is with these "free speech zones"? Seriously, that's not okay.
Question 10 - To Cobb - so, about this living wage. The Ithaca living wage is calculated at $8.66 or something. I'm a student, making $7 an hour. I don't particularly need that additional $1.66. Isn't there a better way of conducting this wealth transfer?
(I know this questioner, and he tells me he was thinking of the Earned Income Tax Credit)
Cobb: No, there's not. Other people need it, and you can just donate the surplus if it bothers you. We want everyone to be able to support themselves through noble, mural-worthy labor.
Badnarik: We're opposed to minimum wages.
Brown: A problem is that the minimum wage is not indexed to inflation. We've done so in Oregon without the problems prophesied.
Question 11 - If elected, what would you do for small businesses?
Peroutka: There's no constitutional authorization at the federal level, that's more of a state thing.
Badnarik: We're in favor of small business. We want to lift regulations that disproportionately burden small businesses, and replace them with the discipline of the market.
Brown: We favor publicly provided utilities and healthcare, which would cut costs. Our reforms to bankruptcy law and taxes would also help.
Cobb: Universal health care.
Question 12 - To Badnarik - so, last election 50% of the electorate didn't vote, and almost all the rest didn't vote for you. Why do you keep going?
Badnarik: I'm doing the right thing, and as seen in cases like that of George Washington, uphill battles against a superior foe in the name of right are not always wasted effort.
(I was in the line for a microphone at this point, and stopped paying attention to talk to someone else on the question-line for the rest of this question. I think Washington was referenced again, probably by Peroutka, at least.)
Question 13 - You all seem somewhat isolationist, or at least cynical with regards to foreign policy? Is there anything you have to offer in the realm of active international policy?
Cobb: We need to act to prevent genocide, and should have troops in Sudan.
Brown: We need to act multilaterally, and pursue goals higher than the capture of oil and treasure.
Question 14 - Partial-birth Abortion. Respond.
Peroutka: I'm 100% pro-life, with no exceptions.
Cobb: We're 100% pro-woman, pro-choice. We think access to abortion is a fundamental human right.
Badnarik: The Libertarian Party is not of a single mind with regards to abortion. Our platform emphasizes a pro-choice position, flowing from the principle of self-ownership, but other libertarians have staked out solid pro-life positions based on the same principle.
Brown: Our platform emphasizes universal access to all reproductive health services, abortion included. I can see the logic in limitations on abortions past a certain point of gestation, but would demand exceptions to protect the life of the mother.
Badnarik: The only wasted vote is a vote for a candidate you don't want. Get involved with the party of your choice.
Brown: Use your vote wisely. Now, here are three quotes regarding socialism from Eugene V. Debs, Martin Luther King Jr., and someone else the transcriber failed to note.
Cobb: If you don't turn on to politics, politics will turn on you. We're growing as a party. As this debate shows, it's possible to address even major differences in opinion in a civilized and productive manner.
Peroutka: The American view of government requires God. In socialism, the state is god. We need to protect the most vulnerable, innocent lives in our society from abortion. Rights are derived from God and protected by governments, and God has not granted women the right to kill their unborn children. God, Family, Republic.
Aftermath and Analysis
With this the debate ended, unfortunately before I got to ask my question ("American third parties have traditionally tended to have regional focuses. Mr. Brown, you were mentioning the Socialist strength in Wisconsin, and I know Mr. Badnarik is focusing his media purchases in New Mexico and Nevada. How do regional considerations play into your national campaigns?"). As most of the audience left, I was interviewed twice, once on paper by a student newspaper correspondent fishing for quotes, and once on camera by a documentary crew from god knows where working on a piece about third parties.
Afterwards, I went down to meet Badnarik, as the candidates talked to students and press between the stage and the exits. I still wanted to ask about the western states media strategy, so I ventured over into his orbit and waited as people asked basic policy questions and got basic canned responses. When he was free, I shook his hand, congratulated him on his nomination, and asked my question. He said it was doing as well as expected, and that if he had the budget, he'd like to expand it to more markets. This led into his description of the limitations of the campaign, mostly that that people gave a lot more advice than money or time, and encouraged me and the rest of his listeners to volunteer. Continuing, Badnarik talked about the necessity of taking control of the process and charting his own course. He dismissed candidates just running for the sake of their parties, and announced that he was doing it all for himself. Now, that's a reasonable emphasis on the necessity of "heart" for effective contenders, especially given the party's strong Objectivist strain, but it followed the exhortation to volunteer somewhat awkwardly. With that, I said my goodbyes, grabbed some schwag like a Peroutka DVD, and made my way out
So, what did I think of the debate? Well, it wasn't a particularly fine day in the history of Western oratory. Part of the university's mock election program, it had been pitched as a refreshing alternative to the showy but vapid major party "press conference" debates. On the contrary, I found even less in-depth exploration of issues, genuine back-and-forth, or concrete policy proposals than I did in the headliners' debates.
Some of this must be attributed to the format, with only 90 minutes for four candidates, a first-come first-served "town hall" question format that ensured that most questions came from the students who spent the least time composing them, and an answer format that encouraged candidates to respond in parallel, keeping them from tearing into their compatriots. Part of it was the event's schizophrenia, not clear whether it was a policy debate or a roundtable on third parties.
Some of this, however, has to do with the debaters themselves.
The Constitution Party's basic doctrine forced Peroutka to denounce many programs and activities as illegitimate absent specific constitutional authorization, but this didn't mean it should have been impossible for him to provide any vision for a possible future administration. Even his platform's positive elements lacked any appearance of substance. God and small-r republicanism are nice words, but what do they mean as governing principles? I don't know, and I doubt that anyone else who went into that debate not knowing does now. Even when given an opportunity to speak on a pet issue, his pro-life absolutism, Peroutka was able to deliver some impressive, if boilerplate, rhetoric, but failed to follow through and offer any actual policy suggestions.
If Peroutka offered a hazy future, then at least it was a future. The closest thing to a theme I could extract from Brown's speeches was something like "American socialism is a rich and honorable tradition!". At several points Brown referred back to prominent historical figures, quotes, or events with little attempt to link them to present events and circumstances. His attempt to associate socialism with respected American traditions and notables might have had some worth in distancing socialist thought from such communist historical embarrassments as the Eastern Bloc and Khmer Rouge, though this was probably more for the benefit of the C-SPAN cameras than the Ithaca locals, a good number of whom know from Trotsky. However, between this and his generally detached, passionless self-presentation, Brown more than anything seemed to position the Socialist party as backward-looking, more interested in reliving the triumphs of the past than of confronting the challenges of the future.
The Green Party publicly decided not to attempt to be a player in the 2004 elections, campaigning only in states considered to be a "lock" for one of the major parties, running a candidate mostly for the media attention and boost to Green candidates in down ballot races. Cobb, well, Cobb does a good job of running a race you're not trying to win. He was easily the most vocally passionate on the stage, playing to his "base" in angrily blaming everything on The Man, repeatedly attributing national problems to the influence of commercial corporations or the racist, sexist American system. Several times he described the Green Party as "growing", emphasizing its local emphasis and the opportunity for effective change from the bottom-up.
Even if his primary goal was to rally the troops and position the Greens as a party of those who might already be predisposed to join, however, I think Cobb could have done a better job of appealing to voters who might not intuitively consider themselves Green, or at least of trying not to actively alienate them. Again, some concrete proposals would've worked nicely here. Given the Green movement's noted local focus and its coordination with overseas counterparts, you'd think Cobb could have found some examples of successful Green initiatives to cite as models for more large-scale policy. Also, this would have helped avoid supremely wince-worthy moments as Question 6, where Cobb proposed tax increases as an anti-poverty measure, with no apparent sense of what exactly would be done with this money.
Now we come to Badnarik. If you'd followed my life as reflected through my nodes here on E2, it would mean that you're pretty creepy. Seriously. What it would also mean is that you know I'm fairly libertarian, and Badnarik was my dog in this fight. While I've tried to keep my account evenhanded, the simple facts that I was paying closer attention to his words and could call on a richer knowledge of his platform in reconstructing from my notes means that he probably emerges from this account looking like he had a bigger edge on eloquence and coherence than he really did. Even factoring this in, however, I think Badnarik came off as the most "together" candidate. However, that wasn't really saying all that much, and to tell the truth, I was a bit disappointed in his performance.
Badnarik is generally considered to be a very good public speaker - after somehow making a living as a freelance "constitutional scholar" and lecturer, he was a dark horse candidate for the Libertarian nomination, and claimed the position partly on the strength of a good performance at the convention debate. Perhaps the lecture is his form and this format cramped his style, with the necessity of speaking to an audience fairly unfamiliar with your basic principles forcing some bluntness. Even if so, I kept wincing at what he didn't do - use specific examples to illustrate the way libertarian policies could positively impact various groups (there are several think tanks that make a living providing just such examples), use questions about policies he dislikes as opportunities to embrace the shared goals behind them and then pivot to offer libertarian approaches as a better way to reach these goals.
Another strange thing about Badnarik's role was the emphasis he put on the ecumenical support of third parties in general, declaring "the only wasted vote is cast for someone you don't want", and imploring audience members to get involved in politics with the party of their choice. (Hm, "The Party of Your Choice". Has that ever been a Libertarian motto?) This might have been a somewhat defeatist attempt to shore up the base, but also offers the possibility that the LP is attempting to claim leadership on possible third-party joint efforts. Cobb and Badnarik have worked together on several cooperative efforts and media events this campaign, and have reputedly expressed significant respect for each other and each other's party, noting significant overlap in their platforms. Indeed, one striking thing about this debate was the extent to which the parties shared positions on a variety of issues - speedy withdrawal from Iraq, an end to corporate welfare (and even corporate personhood, a concept I once defended in a writeup, though more out of a desire for balance than a firm conviction of its rightness), amendment if not repeal of the USA PATRIOT Act, and wariness about intrusions on civil liberties - where both major parties either take the opposite side or ignore the matter altogether.
This all creates an environment that seems likely to foster transpartisan cooperation, and the prospect intrigues me. On the other hand, one must remember that just because third parties act together is no guarantee they'll cease to be the third parties we know and love. I believe at one point several candidates were vying to be the most enthusiastically in favor of repealing the Fourteenth Amendment, though standing in line, my sight was blocked and I couldn't tell who. At one point someone, I believe it might have been Cobb, suggested simply focusing on promoting a more "correct" reading in the Supreme Court. I mean, woah. There're some parts of that amendment I'm pretty fond of.
So, after all is said and done, if we want to get back to a winner-loser paradigm, I'm inclined to call it a win for Badnarik, but on the basis of walks and unforced errors. This might be favoritism, though, and I could see calling it for Cobb on the same narrow basis. On the broader issue of the viability of third parties, I have no ready answer. On the optimistic side, there was enthusiasm and real dedication on display, but for the pessimists, there was a lot of garden variety not ready for prime time incompetence. In the end, I suppose Badnarik's nonpartisan message summed up the evening best - if you don't like how things are being done, there's no solution but jumping in and trying to do them better yourself.