WASHINGTON, D.C.—Two presidential candidates recently faced off in a spirited debate here, but neither was named Barack Obama or John McCain.

Sponsored by Free and Equal Elections, the third-party debate was open to any presidential candidate who could statistically win at least 270 electoral college votes tomorrow. But only two of the six national tickets—Independent and Constitution—were represented; Libertarian Bob Barr was in Atlanta that day and Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney couldn’t be bothered. The little-watched cable network C-SPAN—oh, wait, make that C-SPAN 2—was the only live broadcast option for lost Thursday night channel-surfers.

A diverse, casually dressed fan base of about 50 (plus organizers and random media) bought the $50 tickets and spread out comfortably among 100 chairs to watch the event in a lower ballroom, buried on the bottom floor of the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue. The ballroom’s crystal chandelier was ornate, but the rough media setup was not: two novice cameramen struggled for half an hour trying to figure out how to set up their lights properly, their long metal spotlight poles swinging precariously over any early arrivals (who, by the way, must have arrived in time because they somehow found on their first try the only hotel elevator servicing that room). No dignitaries were in attendance and no celebrity endorsements were pending. And yet the limited and secondary exposure only seemed to heighten the purpose for the debate.

“Our ultimate goal of the event was to give the American people a chance to hear what the national media does not cover,” event co-organizer Christopher Thrasher said, kicking off the evening. Thrasher emphasized that the special debate allowed the candidates to “talk about real issues, instead of mainstream political jargon.”

It was a great idea with intriguingly mixed success. The topics ranged from global warming to health care to Bush Administration policies, but the hottest by far was the monopoly of two-party politics and their mishandling of domestic and international affairs. Both candidates repeatedly spoke out against the two-party establishment and major media snubs of alternate voting choices. And unlike the major party debates, no candidate shied away from issues or sentences that could be baked into fresh new negative headlines the following morning.

“If the American people knew the details of how the two party system shuts out third parties, they would be outraged,” Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin said. “The two parties have failed to uphold the Constitution.” His single opponent, Independent Ralph Nader, intoned that the country is in “deep trouble” in the hands of the two major parties, and called the Republican–Democrat system “a suppression of First Amendment rights.” Both candidates tried to outdo each other in distancing themselves from the mainstream, often in the same breath that they loudly complained about the mainstream’s refusal to accept them.

Both candidates appeared comfortable in the secluded setting—Nader perhaps a little too comfortable. He enjoyed leaning far over his podium to make repeated points about corporate corruption and occasionally interjected comments while Baldwin was speaking. Baldwin stressed border security as his top priority. Neither listed the failing economy among their primary issues.

Baldwin called Bush’s $700 billion economic bailout plan “a fraud against the American people. Our money supply is backed by nothing. Our government’s only answer to over $10 trillion in debt is to borrow more money.” He said if he were elected president he would replace the current Treasury Secretary with someone like congressman Ron Paul, eliminate the Federal Reserve, and put America back on “sound money” again (referring to purchasing gold to back the currency). There was no word on where there the money would come from to back the dollar again—perhaps Baldwin was planning to have Ron Paul mastermind another one of his famous internet fundraisers. Nader said that to fix the economic crisis, he would re-regulate the financial market by doing away with the de-regulations that occurred during the Clinton Administration, give more power to shareholders on Wall Street, and utilize criminal prosecution against corporate corruption.

The debate reached an audience even smaller than that of NBC’s fall ratings disaster, Knight Rider, but had the debate been broadcast live on the four major networks, viewers would not have been changing channels as quickly. After hearing endless pandering from the major-party stumps, it was refreshing and downright entertaining to hear the unabashed criticism and almost comical policy ideas the third parties had to offer. (Ron Paul as Federal Reserve Chairman? Really?) I am not sure who would have more fun with their ideas: Nancy Pelosi or Saturday Night Live.

As completely “fresh voices” the two candidates ultimately failed—it might as well have just been a hyper-conservative Elephant and an ultra-liberal Donkey behind the two podiums. The very lifeline of third party candidates is actually everything that FREE bemoans about the Republican-Democrat establishment. If they were not shunned, if the media had covered the D.C. debate, if ballot access were easy, then both Nader and Baldwin would eventually slip full circle back into the “mainstream political jargon” melting pot. The cold shoulder that they get—not their actual criticisms or policies—is what makes them so special, so compelling, and so easy to empathize with.

Third party candidates feel like they have nothing to lose because we never give them the chance to prove themselves. Maybe that’s not because we haven’t heard them, but because we have—and we all know C-SPAN 2 is where they belong.

 
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