If Pittsburgh is the site of a 2004 presidential debate -- and convention bureau officials say we're in the running -- then Chris Shaw has some suggestions: Open up the stage and free up the debating forum.
Shaw, organizing director of Open Debates, a fledgling group in Washington, D.C., hopes that a "Citizen Debate Committee" of perhaps 20 ideologically diverse people will be formed to snatch control of the debates from the two major parties. Shaw envisions a debate that includes all candidates who are on enough state ballots to win an electoral-college majority. The debates should also include candidates whom 5 percent of registered voters will likely vote for (since the 5 percent threshold is good enough to trigger the Federal Election Commission to offer matching funds), as well as to those whom more than 50 percent of eligible voters say they would like to see up on that national stage.
Open Debates doesn't propose conducting such polls on its own, relying instead on established national organizations such as Gallup.
"It's not going to create some sort of situation where 15 people are up on stage," Shaw assures. In 1988, for example, if the Open Debates criteria had been used the presidential podium-fest would still have included only Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican George Bush the elder. In 1992, Texas millionaire fruitcake Ross Perot would have been the only third-party candidate to join Bush and Bill Clinton on stage. Perot was present already, Shaw reminds us, but only as a calculated move by Bush: Perot had dropped out once during the race, aiding Clinton's poll numbers, so his inclusion, Bush strategists were said to reason, could only help.
The biggest changes would have come more recently. Perot was excluded in 1996, but would have been included under the Open Debates scheme. The new rules would have made the biggest difference in the last presidential election: Third-party hopefuls Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan each would have earned a debate spot, instead of being locked out.
Open Debates isn't merely hoping to up the body count. "One thing we would like to see is a large change in format," Shaw says. "In 2000, 37 percent of the time the candidates were agreeing with each other." The group's suggestions: Permit more follow-up questions, candidate-to-candidate questioning, rebuttals, increased response times and no more vetoing of moderators.
"We want an authentic town hall debate," he says -- one where questions are not placed in writing beforehand and screened.
Could a more inclusive and probing debate actually open the door to a third-party candidate? "It's possible," Shaw says. "There is the example of Gov. Jesse Ventura, who was polling at less than 10 percent before the [Minnesota] debates."
But do we want that? "It's something we should let the American people decide. The debate should be about ideas. I trust the American people."
Nobody on the Open Debates board has a current affiliation with a third party, although several have past associations, including John B. Anderson, who made a surprising showing as an independent presidential contender in 1980. Anderson was included in those debates of two decades ago, when they were run by the non-partisan League of Women Voters.
"We're not advocating the election of third-party candidates," Shaw says. "We're about having a format that's going to lead to a broader and more in-depth discourse on the important political issues that face our country," such as homelessness, police brutality, corporate crime -- all too little mentioned, he says, under the current debate format.
"The debates should not be run by the two major candidates," he concludes. "They want everything to go as expected."
For more information: www.opendebates.org.