Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Thought the debates were over? Not quite.
On Tuesday night, the other four candidates for president — Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Jill Stein of the Green Party, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party — met in Chicago for their only televised debate of the election season.
Their debate was nothing like the showdowns we’ve seen between President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Mitt Romney — and not just because those two debated on network television, while the third-party candidates were carried only on C-SPAN, Russia Today and Al Jazeera.
Obama and Romney used their debates as a chance to tear into each other. These four candidates used their debate as a chance to tear into the American electoral system.
“Our electoral system has been so constricted, our democracy so degraded,” said Anderson, complaining that “even getting on the ballot so you can give people choices” was near impossible.
Anderson is on the ballot in just 16 states this year.
But even Stein and Johnson, who are on the ballot in almost every state, shared their frustrations.
“It’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum,” Johnson said of the Democrat and Republican parties.
“(We) aren’t bought and sold to the highest bidder,” Stein said of the candidates onstage, describing their responsibility as one of reminding the American people that “money is not speech and corporations are not people.”
Their anger has been punctuated in recent weeks by the fact that none has been able to secure a nod from the Commission on Presidential Debates, the decision-making body that does the official inviting and organizing for all the debates between Obama and Romney, and their running mates.
The candidates have staged protests, filed lawsuits and have even been arrested in their quests to get on a stage with Obama and Romney.
But in the end, they were forced to strike out on their own — with Larry King’s help as moderator, who was right on board with the raison d’etre of the debate.
“I think these people deserve a lot of credit for coming forward,” King said. “They may not be counted on November 6 but they’re counting today and they deserve to be heard.”
King did not run his debate like other moderators. He was strict with time, but extremely lax about form: When at one point he fumbled a question, Stein pointed out that none of the candidates had been allowed to give opening statements. So 20 minutes in, they dropped the whole debate thing and introduced themselves to the audience.
King also largely allowed the candidates to set the topical priorities of the debate, which is why they addressed foreign policy and the budget only after giving impassioned speeches about drone use, incarceration rates, legalizing drugs and the evils of the Fed.
A few discussions touched on differences between the candidates. They don’t agree about the government’s role on climate change, immigration or who should be paying for higher education.
But though their differences made the debate more debate-like, the third-party candidates lost strength as a force to be reckoned with in the greater campaign as they began to turn on each other. That phenomenon was fleeting, however. As the debate went on, they wound up resting on their mutual loathing of defense spending and war.
King then threw them a final curveball question: How would you amend the Constitution?
Anderson went for mandating nondiscrimination of gays and lesbians. Stein wanted to clarify that corporations are not people. And Johnson and Goode both piped up for term limits.
Not since Ross Perot ran in 1992 has a third-party candidate been invited to debate onstage with their Republican and Democratic counterparts.
And the best-performing third-party candidates of 2012 are drawing nowhere near the 39 percent of the vote Perot commanded in the summer before the election. Johnson captures about 4 percent in independent polls, while Stein garners 2 percent.
Ironically, their best combined pull — about 6 percent — is exactly the margin that remains between Obama and Romney.