Third party presidential debate offers unheard voices, other choices

More than two candidates are running for President of the United States in 2012. Photo by Ben Haines.

The day after Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney debated for the third and final time, four lesser-known third-party presidential candidates convened in Chicago for a debate at the Hilton Hotel on Tuesday, Oct. 23.

The four candidates included Jill Stein of the Green Party, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party.

The debate was sponsored by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and broadcast on C-SPAN. Larry King and Christina Tobin served as moderators.

“I think these people deserve all the credit for coming forward,” King said of the four candidates in the beginning of the debate. “It’s easy to sit back and watch. These people stand up.”

“They may not be counted on November 6, but they’re counting today and they deserve to be heard,” King added.

Six questions were gathered from public submissions through social media. Every candidate had two minutes to answer each question followed by optional one-minute rebuttals.

The debate covered familiar issues like education and foreign policy as well as topics not often addressed by the Romney and Obama campaigns, including the war on drugs, the implications of a two-party government system, and the National Defense Authorization Act.

Our electoral system

The first question sought the candidates’ positions on Top Two primary systems, in which candidates choose their own party labels on ballots instead of being nominated and only the two candidates that receive the most votes in a primary appear on the ballot in the November election. Louisiana, Washington, and California currently use this system and it is now a ballot measure in Arizona, Prop 121.

Stein denounced Top Two as obscuring the meaning of independent political parties that “aren’t bought and sold to the highest bidder.” She recalled an Oct. 16 incident outside Hofstra University, just hours before the second debate between Obama and Romney, in which she and running mate Cheri Honkala attempted to enter the debate hall and were arrested by police after sitting in the street and refusing to move.

“We were tightly bound with plastic restraints and tied to chairs for eight hours for daring to stand up and demand open debates,” Stein said.

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Goode agreed with Stein about the Top Two system enhancing those with the most money. He added that he is against political action committees as well as public financing in elections.

Goode criticized “$100 million of taxpayer money” funding the Democratic and Republican national conventions this year. The Washington Post reported after the debate that each convention actually received $68 million in taxpayer money – $50 million for security and $18 million for additional costs including food, hotel rooms, confetti, and liquor.

Though Johnson opposed Top Two primary systems, he cautioned that they should be removed at the local or state level, not the federal level. “I’ve always been pro-choice regarding everything,” he said.

On the subject of campaign contributions, Johnson asserted that political candidates should be required to wear “NASCAR-like jackets” with patches representing their sponsors.

Anderson said it is already difficult to get on the ballot and Top Two systems continue “the degradation of our democracy by this duopoly of the Republican and Democratic parties.”

“We need public financing of elections for our democracy,” said Anderson. “We need free and equal access to our airwaves.”

War on drugs

Three of the four candidates sharply criticized the war on drugs.

Gary Johnson served as Governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003.
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Johnson claimed that 90 percent of the drug problem in America is prohibition-related, not use-related, and called for the sale of marijuana to be regulated and taxed.

“I am not a hypocrite on this issue. I have drank alcohol. I’ve smoked marijuana,” Johnson said, clarifying that he no longer partakes in either substance. “In no category is marijuana more dangerous than alcohol.”

Johnson decried the U.S. having the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world with more annual arrests for drug-related crime than any other violation.

Anderson called the war on drugs catastrophic and insane. He pledged to entertain pardons for anyone in federal prison convicted of drug offenses with no other criminal history.

Anderson referred to the case of Weldon Angelos, a Utah man currently serving a 55-year federal prison sentence for selling marijuana on three occasions, despite having no prior criminal record. Though Judge Paul Cassell disagreed with the sentence and called for President George W. Bush to pardon Angelos, federal code mandated the minimum sentence because the police informant in the case testified that Angelos possessed a firearm during the drug transaction, even though he never brandished it.

Stein cited her 25 years as a practicing medical doctor. She described marijuana as “not dangerous at all” and called for its legalization.

“Marijuana is a substance that is dangerous because it’s illegal,” Stein said, contending that the biggest health risks related to marijuana are the public health and safety impacts associated with prohibition.

Goode made it a point to clearly contrast himself with the other three candidates.

“Let’s be clear about my position on this,” Goode said. “I’m not for legalizing drugs. If you want that, vote for one of them, don’t vote for me.”

Goode pledged to cut federal spending in the war on drugs but argued that it is currently a minor part of the overall federal budget. He maintained that drug use is a state issue rather than a federal issue.

Foreign policy

Asked what role the U.S. military should play worldwide and if an annual budget of nearly $1 trillion is necessary to keep America safe, Goode made it clear that he supports a strong defense but said the United States should not try to be the overseer of the world.

Virgil Goode served as U.S. Representative of Virginia's 5th District from 1997 to 2009.
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“Our bases need to be reduced around the world, not increased,” Goode said. “That will save us billions and billions of dollars.”

Goode vowed to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and not send the military into any country, including Syria, unless Congress issues a formal declaration of war.

Stein called for the U.S. to lead the development of an international treaty and convention to ban the use of drones as a weapon of war and a means of spying on the American public.

“Dropping bombs on weddings and funerals, which is what drones do with an incredibly high civilian casualty rate,” said Stein, “is not a good way to win the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East.”

Anderson noted two fundamentals of military engagement that he would abide by: no wars without first being attacked or having an imminent threat of attack, and the decision to go to war must belong to Congress. “To attack and occupy another country like we did Iraq is an illegal war of aggression,” he said.

Anderson slammed congressional Republicans and Democrats who approve wasteful defense spending under the influence of private military contractors and subcontractors.

Johnson pledged to submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013 with a 43 percent cut in military spending that would include an end to military intervention and drone strikes.

Explaining his opposition to bombing Iran, Johnson claimed “the largest demonstration in the world in support of the United States after 9/11 was in Iran by over one million citizens that showed up in support of the United States.”

The Washington Post reported that no media record of such a pro-American demonstration by over one million Iranians exists and that the Johnson campaign did not provide them with an example.

Higher education

The four candidates were split evenly regarding what the government should do to provide more people with access to higher education.

Rocky Anderson served as Mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, from 2000 to 2008. Photo source:

Anderson noted that free secondary education was enough when the country was founded but argued that free and equal educational opportunity in colleges and technical schools is necessary today.

“This is not a radical idea,” Anderson said. “It’s done in many parts of the world and it pays off huge dividends.”

Stein called the younger generation America’s greatest resource and said a college education is essential for economic security in the 21st century. She argued that the economy must be rebooted by fresh genius with every generation.

“That doesn’t happen when a generation is locked into being indentured servants,” Stein contended. “That’s what our students are now. We need to bail them out and create free public higher education.”

Conversely, Johnson claimed that college tuition is high because of guaranteed government student loans.

“If kids would take a harder look at it, ’Gee, I don’t think I can afford $15 thousand a semester, I think I’ll just sit this one out,’” Johnson said, “when that happens en masse, I guarantee you the cost of college tuition will drop dramatically.”

Johnson cited his establishment of lottery scholarships in New Mexico as an equal-access alternative to government-funded education.

“We can’t afford more federally subsidized student loans and we can’t afford more Pell grants,” Goode stated. He maintained that balancing the federal budget and reducing debt is the most important thing for the economy.

Goode likened Stein and Anderson to Obama and Romney, referring to the Democratic and Republican candidates’ promises during previous debates to expand federal student loans and Pell grants.

“You’ve got four candidates you can look to if that’s your big issue,” Goode said to the audience during his rebuttal.

Civil rights

The candidates discussed their stances on Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012, the ability to indefinitely detain any person, including American citizens, who is deemed part of or working with terrorist organizations. The provision is a reaffirmation of presidential authority outlined in the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists that was passed by Congress in 2001 three days after 9/11.

Jill Stein graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1979.
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This topic had the candidates in such agreement that none of them followed up with a rebuttal.

“This is unallowable and is a basic offense against the very foundation of American liberty and it should be repealed,” declared Stein. She also called for a repeal of the 2001 Patriot Act which was extended by President Obama in 2011.

“We need to stop the persecution of whistleblowers who blow the whistle on crimes by our government,” Stein added.

Anderson criticized then-Sen. Obama’s 2008 decision to reverse his opposition to legislation supported by President Bush that provided legal immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in the Bush administration’s domestic wiretapping program.

The New York Times: Obama Voters Protest His Switch on Telecom Immunity

“What we have seen through the Bush years and now with President Obama has been absolutely subversive and anti-American,” said Anderson. “If one person can determine against whom and under what conditions laws passed by Congress and our Constitution are going to be applied, that spells tyranny.”

Goode kept his answer short and simple. “If I were president, I would have vetoed NDAA,” he said.

Johnson also said he would have vetoed the bill. He proceeded to cite a 2011 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that rated presidential candidates on a scale of 0 to 24 “liberty torches,” in which Johnson received the highest score with 21. Stein, Anderson, and Goode were not featured in the report.

Your own constitutional amendment

The final question challenged the candidates to consider a hypothetical situation in which they could write one amendment to the U.S. Constitution, absolutely guaranteed to be ratified by Congress and three-quarters of the state legislatures.

“I’ve already written it,” Anderson answered. “It’s the new equal rights amendment promising that equal rights under the law will never be abridged on account of gender or sexual orientation.”

“I do think it would pass if the people made it clear that we insist upon it and there will be a heavy political price paid by anybody in Congress or in the White House who opposes it,” said Anderson.

Goode stressed the importance of an amendment mandating term limits for senators and representatives. He cited his 12 years of experience as a U.S. representative and argued that term limits would change “a Congress that is always worried about the next election instead of what’s best for the country.”

“If we could get it through the House and the Senate, it would go like a knife through hot butter of the state legislatures,” Goode said.

Johnson also called for outlining term limits in the Constitution. He described politicians who say and do whatever it takes to get re-elected as “the root of all evil.”

Johnson expressed regret over not pushing the envelope more during his first term as New Mexico’s governor but said having a two-term limit motivated him to do whatever he could to help the state during his second term. “Politicians would get elected and do the right thing,” according to Johnson, if they knew their time in office could not go beyond one term.

Stein cautioned that term limits would not stop corporations from buying candidates and swaying election outcomes in the first place. She called for a constitutional amendment clarifying that money is not speech and corporations are not people.

“In stealing our rights of personhood, corporations have done exactly that,” Stein said. She pledged to support an amendment “to get our constitutional rights back from the corporations that have seized them.”

The entire 2012 third party presidential debate is viewable on YouTube, presented by Ora TV.

The next debate between Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will take place Monday, November 5 at 9 p.m. in Washington, D.C. The event was scheduled for Tuesday, October 30 but was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy, according to The Washington Times. The debate will be streamed live on the Free and Equal organization website.