As this cycle's presidential campaign begins to shape up, voters are seeing the same old last names, plus extremes on both sides. A recent article in Politico carried the headline, "Poll Shows Americans not impressed with 2016 presidential contenders." The poll, conducted by George Washington University, found that of the 11 likely Democratic and Republican candidates, not one of them has a favorability rating above 47 percent.
Meanwhile, in this vast and varied land, there are dozens of experienced leaders who would make great presidents. But they aren't party regulars. They can't pass the litmus tests. They're independent thinkers.
But right now, an independent can't be elected president - even though three out of five Americans say they would like to vote for one and more Americans than ever in history identify themselves as independent of the two political parties. There are more independents than either Republicans or Democrats.
So why can't an independent be elected? "The political system has been rigged against independent voices," writes Harvard political scientist David King. He adds...
Take the presidential debates as an example. The seemingly non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates is colluding with party leaders, creating rules that protect Democrats and Republicans while effectively blocking any independent candidate from the debate stage. Most Americans don't pay close attention to campaigns until the debates begin in the months before Election Day, so a system that is set up by the party dynasties serves the party interests alone.
So why don't we have a third debater? The answer is found in an institution most Americans have never heard of: the Commission on Presidential Debates. The Commission is supposed to be a non-partisan organization, but it is led by the former chairman of the Republican Party, Frank Fahrenkopf, and by a prominent member of the Democratic Party who served as Bill Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry. The Commission is dominated by former Republican and Democratic officials. Do they want competitors for their own party nominees? The question answers itself.
In 1992, Ross Perot was on the debate stage and ended up with 19 percent of the vote. That was an experience that Republicans and Democrats did not want to repeat, so the Commission adopted a rule that would exclude future independents. It's a polling requirement that neither Ross Perot nor any other independent who did not participate in a primary has ever met.
"As long as this rule is allowed to remain, it will lead to the exclusion of all Americans other than the Democratic and Republican nominees into the presidential debates for as long as I live, and as long as my children live." Those are the words of Cara McCormick, writing in the Portland Press-Herald last week. She was asking her own former Senator, Olympia Snowe, a member of the Commission, to open up the debates. (Here is a list of all the members of the Commission: Frank Fahrenkopf (Co-Chairman, R); Mike McCurry (Co-Chairman, D); Howard Buffett; Janet Brown; John Danforth; Mitchell Daniels, Jr.; Charles Gibson; John Griffen; Jane Harman; Antonia Hernandez; John Jenkins; Newton Minow; Leon Panetta; Richard Parsons; Dorothy Ridings; Alan Simpson; Olympia Snowe; and Shirley Tilghman).
Snowe herself has complained that the system is broken: "Everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side." The truth is that she and her fellow Commission members can fix it.
Now, a group of respected Americans is pushing the Commission to give Americans a broader choice. In a series of letters to the Commission on Presidential Debates, they have repeatedly demanded a change in the rules to permit a third participant.
The informal group includes former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind) Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct), former directors of national intelligence Dennis C. Blair, Ambassadors including John Negroponte, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R), former New Jersey Govs. Christine Todd-Whitman (R) and Thomas Kean Sr (R), Atlantic Monthly publisher David Bradley, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), former Defense Secretary William Cohen, and former CIA Director Michael Hayden. It also includes serious academics like David King of Harvard and Larry Diamond of Stanford. For a full list of signers and a copy of the first letter these great Americans sent to the CPD last January, click here.
Rather than understanding its historic position and acting with the interests of the American people in mind, the Commission has stonewalled.
Back in September, a group called Level The Playing Field filed a petition for a rulemaking by the Federal Election Commission to require the Commission to open the debates to a third candidate. The FEC, whose chair recently complained of the organization's total dysfunction has not even replied to that petition.
It appears that the Commission's strategy is to run out the clock. No independent candidate can mount an effective presidential campaign unless he or she knows this summer whether the debates will be closed or open.
What does the group of debate reformers want? David King explained in an article in the Boston Herald:
Create an alternate qualifying rule for participation in the debates by those independent of the two major parties - a ballot access signature competition. Candidates would be required to gain ballot access, through petition drives, in enough states that equal 270 electoral votes. If more than one candidate qualifies - then a single, additional debate spot goes to the campaign which secured the most signatures. This ensures that a qualifying candidate can marshal a national organization with significant breadth of support.