Debate commission goes overboard on exclusion

Just how dangerous is Ralph Nader? Certainly not dangerous enough to justify using police to block his entry to the hall where the first presidential debate took place.

It was an embarrassing moment when the Commission on Presidential Debates sent a representative and three police officers to head off Nader last week.

To be sure, there are solid reasons for holding debates between George Bush and Al Gore, without Green Party candidate Nader, Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan and the Libertarians’ Harry Browne. Most Americans are focused on either Gore or Bush, and it makes sense for at least some debates to allow the public to see the pairing that most people are concerned with.

While the commission has properly focused on giving Americans opportunities to compare Gore and Bush directly, it has been a bit too concerned about excluding Browne, Buchanan and Nader. Why couldn’t Gore and Bush have faced Nader and perhaps Buchanan and Brown sometime during the campaign? Any gains for the third-party challengers are likely to come at the expense of Gore or Bush, but that shouldn’t be a prime factor for the commission, even though it is composed of Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, the handling of Nader last week speaks to an almost paranoid attitude at the commission. He was even threatened with arrest. Nader has demanded an apology and a $25,000 contribution to a project on electoral reform at Harvard Law School. Otherwise, he plans to file a lawsuit. We don’t know enough of the legal questions to say whether a suit would be justified, but the commission ought to be apologetic about its treatment of Nader.

He showed up at the debate site, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, with a ticket donated by a student. Nader says the ticket was good for admission to a pre-debate discussion and then to an overflow room for remote viewing of actual debate. The commission says that tickets were given out in a lottery to students with the "understanding" that the tickets couldn’t be passed to someone else. There was no statement of the conditions on Nader’s ticket, however.

Even if Nader had held a ticket good for admission to the debate itself, it is hard to imagine the rather dignified activist creating a loud spectacle while Gore and Bush spoke. And from a remote viewing room — what was going to happen? Was Nader, who has always used his rights as a citizen in a decent manner, suddenly going to loosen his tie, throw his jacket on the floor and begin smashing the TV, while throwing chairs at other viewers? Please.

Nader deserves an apology, and maybe more, from the commission.

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