The Tribune has a very curious piece  on Tuesday night’s debate between four third-party presidential candidates at the Chicago Hilton. It talks about all kinds of things – except what the candidates actually said at the debate. There’s one direct quote: Libertarian Gary Johnson ‘s characterization of the two parties as tweedledee and tweedledum — hardly an earth-shattering revelation — and the only other information about candidates’ positions comes in thumbnail characterizations cribbed from their websites.
That’s too bad, because in many ways it was a far more interesting debate than those we’ve seen between the two major candidates.
Particularly at the town hall debate between Obama and Romney last week, I was struck by how consistently the two candidates succeeded in not answering the questions that were put to them. On a larger level, there were major issues where all we got were two versions of the establishment consensus – more coal and oil drilling, more free trade pacts, lower corporate tax rates (with loopholes closed, of course – though if you think those loopholes will stay closed, you don’t know Congress).
Wednesday’s candidates were clear and direct. All four were very sharp on the abyssmal civil liberties record of the Obama administration and on the need to end interventionist military policies. The administration’s escalation of drone warfare was roundly condemned. Along with Johnson, the Green Party’s Jill Stein  and former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party  were quite forthright about decriminalizing marijuana. (Former congressman Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party  demurred on that one.)
What emerged was that there are areas where the left and right – which in significant areas, let’s face it, probably reflect the real thinking of Americans more than the corporate programs of the two major parties – converge.
They diverged on the question of funding for higher education, with Stein and Anderson arguing for free higher education – Stein perhaps making the best case for it, pointing out that other advanced economies provide it and that we have too; and that the GI Bill paid for itself with higher productivity – and Johnson and Goode opposing it based on their concerns about deficit spending. Similarly, the two progressives backed public financing of elections, while Johnson called for full transparency and Goode proposed eliminating PACs.
One great question was what constitutional amendment the candidates would like to pass: Johnson and Goode backed term limits, Anderson proposed an updated Equal Rights Amendment also covering sexual orientation, and Stein called for repealing the Citizens United decision and abolishing corporate personhood.
The war on drugs, out-of-control military spending, civil liberties, the corruption of our political process – these are issues of central to concern to many Americans, and they’re not being addressed by the two major candidates.
And as Slate points out , the Chicago debate was the only time climate change has come up in any of this year’s presidential debates. [Also missing: any discussion of federal education policies emphasizing standardized testing and privatization; and as Dean Baker points out , any discussion of Social Security — particularly unfortunate, as it could be a major element in a large-scale budget deal after the election.]
The Tribune actually defends the Commission on Presidential Debates for excluding third party candidates in order to keep debates “on track and substantive.” It might be worth noting that the CPD was established by the Democratic and Republican parties – with financial backing from the same corporations that finance the major campaigns — to replace the League of Women Voter’s sponsorship after candidates like John Anderson and Ross Perot were allowed to participate.
The result has been a further constriction of our political discourse.
I saw a debate by Canadian candidates for prime minister a few years ago, with four candidates – conservative, liberal, social democrat, green – sitting around a table and getting a good bit more than two-minute sound bites. The candidates weren’t interest in posturing as likeable or getting in “zingers.” It was lots more substantive – and lots less evasive — than what we’re offered here.
Also worth noting is the corruption of media coverage of the elections, particularly TV broadcasters including the Tribune Company, which profit immensely from political campaigns – and coincidentally or not, don’t cover candidates who don’t buy ads from them.
And the broadcast industry has lobbied hard against any laws limiting political contributions or even requiring disclosure of donors. (See Super PACs: Bad for democracy, good for TV stations .)
I’d also note that with Illinois solidly in the Obama column, voters might feel less constrained in their choices.
You can watch the debate on C-SPAN .
(Thanks to Chicago Platypus  for providing a last-minute ticket.)