The Plausibility Threshold

I’m not at all opposed to the idea of allowing third party candidates into the general election presidential debates. In most cases, of course, there’s little reason to, as even the exposure and legitimization it would give to said third party candidates would almost never result in one of them becoming seriously competitive for the presidency. (Ross Perot in 1992 was legitimately competitive, so he definitely belonged in those debates. In 1996, there was no real chance for him, and being on the debate stage wouldn’t have changed that.)

A great shame of our electoral system as it currently exists is that there is no mechanism for expressing preference for a third party in a way that doesn’t result in self-sabotage. It’s a first-past-the-post plurality game, so a vote for liberal-third-party-candidate X means one less vote for less-liberal-but-actually-viable-Democrat Y. Without something like instant runoff voting, the whole discussion is more or less moot.

But let’s pretend for the sake of argument, though, that our system is set up to make it reasonable to vote for third parties, and that there ought to be a relatively low threshold for getting into these debates. Let’s say, again for the sake of argument, that instead of the current 15 percent in polls, it’s something like 5. That would have probably gotten Ralph Nader on the stage in 2000, and in this election, it would easily qualify both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

But even granting all of this in our imaginary scenario, something still doesn’t sit right with me about it, and I think I know what it is.

To fully understand my thinking, you have to temporarily forget that the Republicans nominated a lunatic huckster this time around. Donald Trump’s presence in the equation clouds the air of gravity for the presidential debates, so it might help to replace him in your mind with someone like Mitt Romney or John McCain. So do that now. On this imaginary debate stage, with Martha Raddatz or Bob Schieffer or whoever moderating, you have some Romney-McCain type, former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, and…Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

Since winning isn’t in the cards for Johnson or Stein, regardless of the electoral system in place, the ostensible benefits of their participation in the debates would be 1) to have someone articulate positions and concerns not expressed by the major party candidates, and 2) to lend new legitimacy to, and build up the viability of, the third parties for future elections, sending the message that, yes, candidates from these parties are and will be serious options for the presidency.

But is Gary Johnson really presidential material? Really? He seems by all accounts to be a good, principled man with good intentions, and he was a governor, but still. He doesn’t seem to have thought through all of his positions, he has trouble answering questions in succinct sentences, and he hasn’t held an office since a year before Facebook even existed. In my opinion, he doesn’t quite present the figure of a plausible president, and the irony is that he’s the closest the Libertarian Party has ever come to offering up someone who does. He’s more of a “this is the best we could do” candidate for a struggling minor party.

And even presuming the best about Jill Stein (which is a major challenge for me), despite her admirable activist background, she has never won elective office (save for a “Town Meeting Seat” in Lexington, Massachusetts), she panders to conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs, and deifies people like Julian Assange. She is definitely not a plausible president.

And that’s so dispiriting. As someone who’s worked professionally for systemic solutions that would clear the way for third party candidacies, I would love to see a more vibrant and dynamic set of views represented in these debates, but that also means I want those views articulated by credible candidates. Plausible presidents.

This year, the Republican Party has decided not to put forth a plausible candidate. In my imaginary scenario, we had a veteran officeholder of real gravitas to stand for the GOP, but in reality, we have a dangerous man-child. So it’s easier to look to the third party candidates and think, well, shit’s already crazy, why not let them in too? And I get that. But it’s also true that he could actually win, unlike the other two minor candidates, so he needs to be confronted by his billion-times-more-qualified opponent in front of the nation.

But for the third parties, in the abstract, I don’t think debate inclusion achieves what these parties hope they might, and what they really need them to achieve: to show the American public that their zone of the political spectrum can offer up real presidents too. The Libertarians are almost there with Johnson, and frankly would be there now if they’d flipped the ticket and nominated VP candidate Bill Weld instead, or recruited some titan of Silicon Valley like Meg Whitman, Larry Page, or Sheryl Sandberg. The Greens are nowhere near plausibility right now, with Nader 16 years ago being by far the closest they’d ever come to putting forth a credible would-be president. I honestly can’t think of anyone today who might jibe with their politics and be a plausible president, save for perhaps Bernie Sanders.

I want to see that debate, with three, four, or more honest-to-goodness potential presidents advocating and arguing their cases. But our electoral system makes it pointless, and the candidates we’ve gotten so far from the third parties makes it doubly so.