Shays responded Thursday to a Dartmouth academic who argued that even though more Americans say they are independents than say they are Democrats or Republicans, they don't really mean it. He makes the dubious claim that changing the debate rules won't put an independent candidate on a level playing field with the major party candidates and "is unlikely to make a third-party or independent candidacy viable."
Shays begins his rebuttal with a rock-solid premise:
"Americans are frustrated with their polarized political system and believe that their government just isn't working, and they are right. A majority of voters are seeking solutions outside the two major parties, and there are now more independents than either registered Democrats or Republicans. But currently, independent candidates have no chance to influence the positions of the two party nominees, let alone be elected president, when they are not allowed to fully participate in the political process."
Why can't they participate? Because an unelected group called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has established rules that make it impossible for anyone other than a Democrat or Republican to be contenders in the general election debates.
While the CPD bills itself as "non-partisan," it is anything but. Some members of the commission, including the co-chairman, Frank Fahrenkopf, who formerly chaired the Republican National Committee, and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, are explicit. They see their job as preserving the system that for more than two decades has prevented anyone other than the Republican and Democratic nominees from being on the stage. Many of the commissioners have serious potential conflicts of interest. They give money exclusively to one party or the other, endorse presidential candidates and host fundraisers, and support only candidates from the two major parties. Please take a moment to look at this advertisement , placed by Level the Playing Field, currently running in the Wall Street Journal.
But the exclusionary rules don't seem to bother Professor Nyhan one bit.
In his article in the Upshot section of the New York Times on June 3, headlined, "No, a Debate Stage Isn't a Magical Springboard for Minor Parties," Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of political science, says Ross Perot's campaign "illustrates the difficulty of winning as an outsider."
A few things about that: One is that the CPD would not have allowed Ross Perot in the debates under the rule they have used since 2000. And two, just because an independent is judged to be unable to ultimately win the election doesn't mean he or she shouldn't have a fair chance to compete and that his or her ideas won't have an impact.
Chris Shays explains it best, in the New York Times:
"Shortly before the debates, [Ross Perot] was favored by just 8 percent of likely voters. But in the election itself, after the debate had legitimized him as a candidate, Mr. Perot received 19 percent of the vote. Mr. Perot didn't win, but his ideas about fiscal restraint clearly influenced the policies of President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress, resulting in four years of federal balanced budgets. Today's environment calls out for an independent candidate far more than 1992 did. Mr. Perot achieved his one-fifth vote at a time when 37 percent of the electorate called themselves independents. Today, the figure is 43 percent and climbing."
Shays adds: "Under the current debate rules, an independent can't get enough exposure to have a reasonable chance of getting elected. But under rules that would actually allow a third candidate to compete, it stands to reason that many Americans would cast their ballots for the kind of candidate whom they prefer, a candidate the partisan Commission on Presidential Debates is trying mightily to keep off the stage."
In this view, Shays is not alone. He is one of more than four dozen former and current elected officials and business, academic, military, media, and government leaders who signed a letter asking the CPD to open up the debates to a single independent or third-party candidate who meets some significant (but achievable) criteria.
Among the signers of a letter to the Commission demanding open debates are some of America's top political scientists, including...
Larry Diamond, a Stanford University Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution & Freeman Spogli Institute Director, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, and the Peter E. Haas Faculty Co-Director at the Haas Center for Public Service.
David King, who is senior lecturer in Public Policy at The Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Faculty Chair of the Masters in Public Administration programs. After the 2000 elections, he directed the Task Force on Election Administration for the National Commission on Election Reform, chaired by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Morris Fiorina, who is Wendt Family Professor of Political Science at Stanford and a senior fellow at Hoover. He's the former chairman of the Board of Overseers of the American National Election Studies, and he is the winner of the Warren E. Miller Prize of the American Political Science Association. His current research focuses on how well the positions of elected officials reflect the preferences of the public.
Francis Fukuyama, the Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, and Author of The End of History and the Last Man
This is the quality of the group advocating for more open presidential debates - they are all saying that allowing an independent on the debate stage is essential to improve the health of the U.S. political system and the functioning of our government.
Comments from thousands of Americans who want an independent in the debates continue to stream in. Here's my favorite from last week from Karl K. of Orlando, Florida, who asks: "If a debate can't improve the chances for a third party candidate, then why does the duopoly consistently keep them away?"