THE DEBATE DEBATE
SEPTEMBER 17, 1996
The Commission of Presidential Debates has decreed that Ross Perot--and all other presidential third party candidates--doesn't have a realistic chance to win the election and, therefore, will be excluded from all televised debates. Co-chair of the bipartisan commission, Paul Kirk, visits the NewsHour to defend this decision. But Perot running-mate Pat Choate tells Margaret Warner that the move is unconstitutional. In his view Ross Perot has met all the commissions criteria.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Sept. 12, 1996
David Gergen discusses Ross Perot with Gerald Posner, author of Citizen Perot, His Life and Times.
Sept. 11, 1996
The regional commentators debate whether or not Ross Perot should participate in the debates.
Aug. 19, 1996: David Broder of Washington Post, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, and Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio, and pollster Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press discuss the impact of a Perot candidacy.
Aug. 19, 1996: Tom Bearden reports on the Reform Party's convention in Valley Forge, PA.
July 16, 1996
Jim Lehrer conducts a newsmaker interview with Ross Perot.
July 12, 1996
Charlayne Hunter-Gault explores the role of third parties in the upcoming election.
Browse The NewsHour's coverage of the Election Campaign
MARGARET WARNER: The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates recommended today that Ross Perot and all other third party candidates be excluded from the upcoming debate between President Clinton and Bob Dole. The commission said its unanimous recommendation was made "on the basis that only Clinton and Dole have a realistic chance as set forth in our criteria to be elected the next President of the United States." For more on this, we're joined by Paul Kirk, co-chairman of the Debate Commission and a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Welcome, Mr. Kirk.
PAUL KIRK, Commission on Presidential Debates: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: On what basis did you decide that Ross Perot and Pat Choate have no realistic chance of being elected?
MR. KIRK: The criteria we base the decision on is the same criteria that the commission made its decision in 1992 that Ross Perot should be invited to debate. And that is, uh, at that time there was a feeling that Ross Perot had a realistic chance of being elected. In his campaign which he had no limit on the amount of money he could spend, he went forward and participated in the debate, I think got a substantial boost, if you will, in his stature from the debates, went off to the polling booths, as the American people did, he got 19 million popular votes but didn't carry a single state, nor did he win a single electoral college vote which is basically the system we operate in. This time around, the circumstances are somewhat different, that Mr. Perot, as is his right, chose to have a limit on his campaign spending, the federal election limit, the public monies that were granted to him for this election, and so his ability to spend the kind of money to move forward is limited. Secondly, the figures that we see in examining polls and other factors indicate that while a lot of people would like to see Mr. Perot in the debate, upwards of 70 percent of the American people polled don't think he has any chance, and wouldn't vote for Ross Perot for President under any circumstances. Those are some of the considerations that went into the decision. The other thing that I think, Margaret, if I may, that's important to point out, uh, there are some 200 people who have filed for President of the United States. And then the commission looks at each and every one of those individuals, measures their, their candidacy against the realistic possibilities, and basically you winnow down to some handful of candidates, if you will, to measure whether they have something more than a theoretical chance of winning. The question that the commission is left with is: Where do you draw the line? And I think what we did in ‘92 and did again in ‘96, draw the line when the American people will see those one or two or three candidates who have a realistic chance, not a theoretical chance or not as important as it may be to make the debate more interesting a realistic chance of being elected, and that was the basis on which our decision was made.
MARGARET WARNER: But if you look at the objective poll numbers say compared, today compared to in 1992, Ross Perot before he was admitted to the debates, when he got back in the campaign in October was at only about 10 or 11 percent. As you pointed out, it was the debates, his performance that catapulted him up to 19 or 20 percent. Also at that same time, only again 70 percent of the people said they would never vote for him under any circumstances. What--I think it's hard for him to understand and I'm sure many of his supporters--what is really so different today?
MR. KIRK: The difference today I believe is two. There was a test of Mr. Perot in 1992. The fact is he had--earlier in the ‘92 calendar, he led the major party candidates. Then he decided not to continue his campaign and he suspended it, and I think people decided he probably wasn't going to be in. His numbers fell automatically. He did go into the debates. He did get a boost. But it was proven after the campaign that, in fact, he really didn't have a realistic chance, he didn't carry a single electoral vote. My point is as we compare those circumstances to today's circumstance, his standing is low in the polls, he has less money to spend, and the purpose of these debates, Margaret, are not to provide a launching pad for a campaign or a candidacy. This is the world series. This is the end game, if you will, in terms of the debate process. I wish, frankly, that there were a lot of other kinds of forms than there are, a lot of other kinds of forms and debates and opportunities for people to make their ideas known and to contribute to them to the discourse and dialogue of the country. Our purpose and mission is basically to give the American people a focus decision on the candidates who are realistically going to compete, and one of them will be the next President of the United States under that criteria.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you this now just to explain to our viewers how binding or unbinding this recommendation of yours is. In fact, it's up to the Clinton and Dole campaigns to really decide this question, isn't it?
MR. KIRK: Well, the Clinton and Dole campaigns obviously have different views about this, but both campaigns are aware of our criteria. We can't change the criteria. We have said, as we said earlier today, that with respect to Mr. Perot or any other candidates that are mathematically capable, that is on enough ballots to be able to carry electoral majority, the door frankly is open as far as the Commission on Presidential Debates is concerned. The invitation will be extended when these factors are reviewed in the calendar to decide is that candidate or are any of these candidates realistically able to compete for the Presidency of the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay, but Mr. Kirk, let me get this straight. If the Dole and Clinton campaigns come to you after the negotiations and say, we have decided we would like to have five debates and in the first one Ross Perot will be included, which the Dole campaign--let's just say theoretically--might agree to in return for getting more debates--would you then say sorry we won't host that debate, go somewhere else, or would you sponsor the debate?
MR. KIRK: I can't say definitively. Our first impression would be we don't want to, by any means, be precluding the opportunity for that kind of a discussion for the American people. I think those kinds of formats and forums are important. I do think that in order for us to be able to withstand further litigation and so forth, we have, we have criteria in place. I don't think we can just absolutely discard it in the face of contests from other campaigns and so forth, so we'd have to obviously be prudent and review and discuss it with our legal counsel as to whether that is something that, in fact, we could do.
MARGARET WARNER: But you are saying it's a possibility?
MR. KIRK: I think at this point I'd have to say we'd have to review it. I do--you know, if it contributes to the dialogue and helps the American people understand the choices, fine. As I say, we'd have to review it.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you, Mr. Kirk. Thanks very much.
MR. KIRK: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: Now reaction to today's decision from Pat Choate, the Reform Party's Vice Presidential candidate. Welcome, Mr. Choate.
PAT CHOATE, Reform Party VP Candidate: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sure you're unhappy about this, but refute, if you would, Paul Kirk's point that Ross Perot is so far down in the polls and so many people said they wouldn't vote for him that he just doesn't have a realistic chance of winning.
MR. CHOATE: I would say two or three things. First of all, this is a bipartisan commission, which means it's composed of Republican and Democrats. It is not a non-partisan commission. The commission was established in 1985 to take away from the League of Women Voters, which is a non-partisan organization, control of the debates and to guarantee that it would be a two-party debate. Second, Mr. Perot was in the debates in 1992 not because of criteria but because George Bush insisted that Ross Perot be in those debates and, indeed, the commission opposed Ross Perot being in the debate, and the campaigns of Bill Clinton and George Bush had to insist and threaten the commission to take the debates away from them before they would actually permit Ross Perot to be in the debates. Finally, as to the realistic chances of winning, Ross Perot, before the election, immediately before the election, the polls were showing that he would do 7 percent. He did 19 percent, and the exit polls show that if more Americans had followed their conscience, rather than the polls, you would have had a circumstance in which Ross Perot would be the President of the United States today. This commission set out some objective criteria at the demand of the Federal Election Commission. The Perot campaign has met each of those criteria.
MARGARET WARNER: By that, you mean they are on the ballot, that--
MR. CHOATE: Specific is that the candidates meet the test of the Constitution of the United States, Perot and I do. Secondly, is that we be on enough ballots to have a numerical chance to collect enough electoral votes to win. The Reform Party, after enormous work, by over a million people, is now on all 50 state ballots in the District of Columbia. We meet that test. The third is that we either take moneys from the Federal Election Commission, or that we have sufficient moneys to guarantee a national race. We have roughly 30 million dollars in the bank from the Federal Election Commission. Now there are only three parties that meet that criteria and test. That was the test that the commission set. We met it. If they wanted us to be at 15 percent in the polls at this point, they should have said so, and we would have spent our money and we would be at this point. They, in effect, are introducing a new set of rules and taking unto themselves a responsibility that belongs to the American people.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So you're saying--are you saying that you think that this criteria about a realistic chance of winning is simply unfair? Are you also saying it's unfairly applied to you?
MR. CHOATE: I say that test is unrealistic. Our whole campaign strategy from the very beginning was to have a low-profile campaign until we move into the last 60 days of the campaign, to do long-form programs, to do media and then make a dash to the end in the campaign. We're doing just that. We're seeing our poll numbers go up. We're moving under the overnight polls to 11 percent. Once we're into the debate, we're--which is the time that most Americans are--tune in and see what has happened, after that, we will have a jump in the polls if we're permitted into the debates, and we will combine that with our detail plans and books to describe what we are going to do. We think that we can win this race. What is happening is the Republican and Democratic Parties are attempting to both kill off the new party, new competition before it can begin, and to deny us an opportunity to talk to the American people.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So what are you going to do about it?
MR. CHOATE: First thing, we're going to file a suit against this commission. This commission has acted very arbitrarily. Members in this commission are in great conflict. Mr. Kirk is a Washington insider.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, but--
MR. CHOATE: No, no, no, no. This is very important on this. What we find is Frank Fahrenkopf, who was the Republican member, is the lead gambling lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Ross Perot strongly opposes gambling.
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
MR. CHOATE: Mr. Kirk represents pharmaceutical in other countries whose interests would come before a Perot administration. Now maybe that had nothing to do with their decisions, but it's very clear they should not have been in this position of deciding for the American people that Ross Perot and I did not have a realistic chance to win office.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, you just heard, I think--we heard Paul Kirk say that if the two campaigns decided, negotiated an arrangement in which they wanted you at least in one debate, that it sounded as if he was saying the would revisit it. Are you talking to the Dole and Clinton campaigns?
MR. CHOATE: Obviously, we're talking to those campaigns. Bob Dole is saying no. The Clinton administration is saying yes very much to the credit of Bill Clinton. But we're, but we're also saying is to the American media and editorial writers now is the moment where we find where you stand on First Amendment rights, free speech, and open debate, and we're saying to the American public you have just had a group of Washington insiders deny you the opportunity of the only party that other than the Republicans and Democrats that meets all of the criteria, that's spending $30 million of your money. The other things Mr. Kirk said here on your show and this morning is that one of the reasons that they decided that they would not let us debate is that they had decided that because Ross Perot was taking Federal Election Commission moneys, playing by the same rules as the Republicans and Democrats, they didn't think $30 million was enough money. All of a sudden, what we're having the insiders say is we'd like Ross Perot to spend $100 million or $150 million, and if he would do that, they'd let him in. One of the things that we're going to ask the Federal Election Commission is to waive the $50 million--the 50,000 dollar limit on contributions. If they want Ross Perot to spend a great deal more money, if that's the criteria, he's willing to spend it.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. We have to leave it there. Thanks, Mr. Choate.
MR. CHOATE: You bet.