In First Presidential Debate, Three’s a Crowd

by Debra Saunders | September 20, 2016 12:03 am

Gary Johnson and Bill Weld — the former GOP governors of New Mexico and Massachusetts who now head the Libertarian Party ticket — should embrace their failure to qualify for the first debate. Commission on Presidential Debates set the bar too high for third-party candidates to own a podium at Hofstra University on Sept. 26: To qualify, nominees had to be constitutionally eligible to serve, appear on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College and show at least 15 percent support in five national polls. With 8.4 percent support in polls selected by the panel, Johnson didn’t make the cut.

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The Johnson-Weld campaign has posted an online petition that calls on the debate panel to let the Libertarians debate. With more than 875,000 online signatures, the campaign likely will meet its goal of 1 million. I think that’s the wrong tactic. Sure, you can argue that the panel is “rigged,” as Johnson said, with too many major party former big shots. If the panel wanted to accommodate third-party candidates, then it could have stuck to its first two criteria. Or it could have had different rules for one of the debates to accommodate outsiders. But that didn’t happen, and it never looks good to ask the folks who control the field to lower their standards so that you can play.

Besides, I think Johnson wins when Americans tune into the debate Monday night and see in the harsh glare of the debate spotlight the best that the two parties have to offer — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, 54.9 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of Clinton, while 57.3 have a negative view of Trump. You just know that more people will despise them by Nov. 8. If I were Johnson, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the stage when Clinton and Trump finally face off.

Pity the moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt. This silly campaign season has focused on what the candidates say far more than what they do. If Holt sticks to that model and, say, asks Trump if Trump was trying to foment violence against Clinton when he suggested Clinton’s bodyguards disarm. (Quoth the Donald: “She doesn’t want guns. Let’s see what happens to her. Take their guns away. It would be very dangerous.”) Trump will be ready to slam Holt as a media elite who hides behind security walls.

If Holt asks Clinton tough questions about her State Department emails, Democrats will target him for the same treatment they reserved for Matt Lauer. My suggestion: Ask Clinton what she means when she says she has taken responsibility for her decision to use a home-brew server for highly sensitive communications. What exactly happens when she takes responsibility?

Last week, it was Johnson’s turn to squirm when MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle asked what he would do about Aleppo. “What is Aleppo?” Johnson responded — confirming that Syria is not a top concern for the Libertarian nominee. Afterward Johnson didn’t try to make excuses. He admitted it looked bad. It’s often the open questions that lead to recriminations.

That’s another reason the Libertarians should be happy to sit out the first dance. Johnson and Weld are right to shift their sights to the October debates. Let Clinton and Trump do their worst to each other — the more voters see of the major party swells with their Machiavellian moves, the more they might crave a real human being who wants the government to do better by doing less.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected][2].

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