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At Third Party Debate, a Focus on Issues Left Out of Mainstream

Larry King moderated the lively discussion between four alternative-party candidates, which focused on issues that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have avoided.
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Iceberg by Ludovic Hirlimann-555.jpg

Climate change is one of the topics never discussed in the major two-party debates. Photo by Ludovic Hirlimann

If you came away from the Obama-Romney debates wondering where the discussion was on issues like climate change, student debt, and the drone war in Pakistan, last night’s debate between third-party candidates may have been just what you were looking for.

Beneath the candidates’ passion and polish, a fatalism about electability surfaced from time to time.

The debate questions were submitted by viewers via social media and read by moderator Larry King. They targeted issues missing from the Obama-Romney debates, like the war on drugs, student debt, and a military appropriations bill that allows the government to detain U.S. citizens without charge.

The four participating candidates filled in areas of the political spectrum both to the left and to the right of Obama and Romney: the Green Party’s Jill Stein, a former medical doctor; the Justice Party’s Rocky Anderson, the former mayor of Salt Lake City; the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode, a former Virginia congressman; and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, the former Governor of New Mexico.

Beneath the candidates’ passion and polish, a fatalism about electability surfaced from time to time, giving viewers a window into the difficulty third-party candidates face in attracting attention from the media and pretty much everyone else. Early in the debate, when King made a procedural error and forgot to have the candidates deliver their opening statements, Mr. Anderson responded by saying, “More people are here to listen to you than to listen to us.”

Despite the exclusion of these candidates from most of the discussion around this election, they had lots of refreshing things to say. Here are three of the top issues the candidates discussed last night.

1. Student debt and its effect on the economy

While Rocky Anderson joined her in supporting tuition-free college education, Stein gave the clearest and most logical explanation for why Americans might consider providing this benefit. “Throughout the twentieth century, we provided a high school education because it was necessary,” she argued. “But a high school education won’t cut it anymore. So now a college degree is necessary, too.”

Stein also offered an unusual insight into the plight of new graduates. More than once, she compared young people just out of school to “indentured servants,” whose creativity and ability to contribute to the economy is hampered by excessive debt.

2. Term limits for members of the Senate and Congress

The drawling Virgil Goode’s arch conservative positions often set him apart from the other candidates gathered Tuesday. On the war on drugs, for example, Goode dissented while the other three advocated legalizing marijuana.

However, when asked how they would amend the U.S. Constitution, if given a chance to pass a single amendment to it, both Goode and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson named the implementation of term limits in the Senate and Congress.

Such a policy change would encourage politicians to “do the right thing,” said the Libertarian Johnson, “as opposed to doing whatever it takes to get elected and re-elected.”

Given that it’s a top priority for these candidates and an issue that could bridge political divides among the grassroots of the left and right, maybe we should be discussing term limits more often.

3. Should the government be able to detain U.S. citizens without charge?

If you had watched only the third-party debates, you would have come away thinking that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was the talk of the nation. The Act, signed by President Barack Obama in December of 2011, grants the president the right to indefinitely detain American citizens without charge or trial.

Moments of unity on apparently off-limits topics showed how these candidates’ voices would have changed the prime-time debates, had they been included.

Groups like the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights went into overdrive trying to fight the NDAA, but in the end it was quietly signed into law. In September, a federal judge ruled the offending sections of the NDAA unconstitutional, but the justice department requested a stay and got one, just four days later.

That means that, for now, the government retains the right to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens. All four third-party candidates denounced this situation and said they’d have vetoed the NDAA if they’d been president.

Moments of unity on apparently off-limits topics such as this one showed how these candidates’ voices would have changed the prime-time debates, had they been included.

The debates would have been a different spectacle indeed if Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—both of whom support the NDAA—had been outnumbered by third-party candidates from across the political spectrum who universally oppose it.

At the same time, that probably goes a long way toward explaining why these candidates have been excluded. Cheers to the nonprofit group Free and Equal for giving Americans to chance to hear their views and to consider supporting them on November 6.


James Trimarco wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. James is web editor at YES!

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