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.


The DNC’s Cowardice Kills the Lessig Campaign

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Lawrence Lessig ended his bid for the Democratic nomination for president today, and I don’t blame him in the least. Due to a last-minute change by the Democratic Party in the rules to qualify for the debates, Lessig was blocked. He accounced his decision to end the campaign in this video:

I’m heartbroken, and I think he is too. I had no illusions that he would be a serious contender for the nomination, but I desperately wanted him on that debate stage. Someone has to make the case for the The One Issue to Rule Them All, fundamental reform of the electoral system. Reform of the systems by which we fund elections, vote for officeholders, and design our legislative bodies really is at the very core of all the other challenges we’re unable to politically confront. But almost no one knows that, or at least they don’t think about it. Lessig, if nothing else, would have made at least a few of us think about it.

I’m heartbroken, too, by the cowardice of the Democratic National Committee. For some reason, they decided that it was in their interest to keep Lessig off of that debate stage. I can think of several reasons why, but all of them are so petty and pathetic, that I am loath to attribute them to the party that ostensibly represents my interests. But who are we kidding? One thing the Democrats have not been known for in many generations in courage. Could they really have been so afraid, or at least squeamish, about Lessig’s message? It’s a message that points out the pox on both houses, but it also offers the vaccine for that pox. I am embarrassed for, and of, the Democratic Party.

I’m disappointed at the Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley campaigns for not advocating on Lessig’s behalf. None of them had anything meaningful to lose by Lessig’s inclusion, certainly not Clinton. Lessig was running as a Democrat because he supports Democratic principles, and was not running to “take down” any of the other candidates. He wasn’t there to “get” them, but to be serve as a kind of conscience. Bernie Sanders is supposed to fill that role, I suppose, but he doesn’t get close enough to the core of what’s wrong. They should have insisted he be included. But of course they wouldn’t.

And I’m seething over the political press, who, when tweeting the news of Lessig’s exit, offered only snark, jokes at his expense. I understand the delight one can take in the failures of ridiculous candidates, the hilariousness that ensues when their hubris far outshines their qualifications or competence. But Lessig wasn’t one of those candidates. He’s a serious, brilliant, accomplished person with a core message that is of existential importance to the republic. But ha-ha, he had to quit, couldn’t get one percent, funny glasses, ha-ha. Whatever plague is making our democracy sick, these people are the rats helping it to spread.

I don’t know if things would have been any different if Lessig had not begun his campaign with the pledge to resign once his legislative agenda had been fulfilled, a pledge he recently recanted in light of the resistance to it, and the fixation on it. I have to think it would have at least helped for the “gimmick” of his candidacy to be the sole focus it ever received from the vapid press.

It seems Lessig is leaving the door open ajar for a third-party candidacy, but I don’t think that’s what he wants. We’re all rolling our eyes at the idea of a Jim Webb independent run, and the last thing Lessig wants is to seem like more of a political joke than the press is already making him out to be.

The point, Lessig says himself, was to get into the debates. That’s where he was going to have his maximum impact. And the Democratic Party has slammed the door in his face. I don’t know what he should do next, although in his blog post following his official announcement, he wrote in a parenthetical:

…first lesson for presidential candidate wanna-be’s: be a Senator first, so your salary can be paid while you’re running for President.

How about it, Larry? You almost ran for the House once. Maybe it’s time to get in the fray at the legislative level. Kick some ass in Congress, and then we’ll see what happens next.

Lessig Says “You Win…I Will Remain President” – But It Might Be Too Late

Image by Robert Scoble (CC-BY-2.0)
Lawrence Lessig has reversed himself on the one aspect of his presidential campaign that I considered deflating, that dampened what would otherwise have been true enthusiasm: He’s no longer pledging to leave office once he achieves his legislative objectives. He means to be president and stay president. He wrote at The Atlantic:

If the Democrats won’t take seriously a candidate with a viable, credible, and professionally managed campaign just because it includes a promise to step aside once the work is done, then fine. You win. I drop that promise.

I am running for president. … After we pass that reform [the Citizen Equality Act], I will remain as president to make sure the reforms stick. I will work with Congress to assure they are implemented. I will defend them against legislative or legal attack.

But beyond that priority, I would do everything else a president must do, too. Which means I bear the burden in this campaign of convincing America I could do that well.

Excellent. I’m delighted by this.

But it’s almost certainly too late to matter.

After the first Democratic debate last week, I said that the quality performances of the first-tier candidates more or less ruled out a Joe Biden candidacy, as the debate made clear that there was no need for either an establishment alternative to Hillary Clinton, nor a left-flank alternative to her or Bernie Sanders. The two of them both did well enough for themselves to settle the race as one between the two of them, and the remaining three candidates were rendered more irrelevant than they already were, if that was even possible.

So my concerns for Lessig are that, first, his being left out of the debates has as much to do with resistance to true reform candidates from the DNC as it does with poor poll showings, or being left out of polls altogether. That resistance certainly won’t have changed now that Lessig is promising to remain president, and the DNC has little interest in someone standing on stage saying that the whole system that keeps them (and the GOP) in power is the real problem. It is the real problem, the problem from which all other problems flow, but it boots the Democrats nothing to admit it.

But second, and probably more importantly, I’m afraid that the moment has passed for grassroots excitement for Lessig to compel the networks, or whoever else has veto power, to care whether or not he’s there. To this time, I have not seen the kind of unbridled enthusiasm for Lessig’s candidacy that I would have expected, especially from the young, civil liberties-minded, Silicon Valley crowd, and I chalk this up to his poorly conceived resignation pledge. Now that he’s wisely reversed himself on this, that enthusiasm has now been channeled largely toward Bernie Sanders. In other words, Sanders is sufficiently reform-minded to sate the appetite for change that Lessig represents. And the debate last week only solidified that state of affairs.

I truly hope that new interest is sparked in Lessig’s campaign, again, not because I think he has any chance of being nominated or elected, but because his message is so vital. The agenda he champions is literally of existential importance to our democracy. A man of his wisdom, intelligence, and humanity carrying a message of achievable and necessary democratic rebirth deserves and needs to be on the next debate stage. He needs to be heard, and the other candidates, the ones who actually can be president, need to address them.

I just despair that it simply won’t happen now. The moment, I fear, has passed. Please, let me be wrong!