Four alternative candidates for president of the United States debated Tuesday night in Chicago and agreed America needs a good dose of what they could provide -- clear, straight talk that has not been market-pasteurized.
The third-party debate, sponsored by the nonprofit Free and Equal Elections Foundation and streamed online with host Larry King, offered up a heaping serving of candidates few voters have seen and issues President Obama and Mitt Romney have seldom raised -- including drug legalization, climate change and indefinite holds on citizens suspected of terrorism.
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 may not win huge votes Nov. 6, but they rocked a Chicago hotel ballroom and the social media landscape, which buzzed with commentary about their conversation.
“You’re all Don Quixotes in a way,” King, the former CNN host, said at the end of the 90-minute session, “but the windmills have a way of stopping and we have a way of saluting you just for getting into the fray.”
The encounter had a quirky charm, featuring opening statements hastily inserted after the candidates had already answered their first question (supplied via social media). It also featured the affable King, an eminence in this setting, who put up with none of the filibustering that the two big-party candidates foisted on the moderators of the major televised debates.
The four candidates were united on several issues -- their disdain for the influence of money in politics, their opposition to massive defense spending and foreign wars, and their determination to cut executive power that allows the indefinite detention of Americans in the war on terror.
Johnson, the Libertarian former governor of New Mexico, said corporate money had gotten so bad in politics that candidates should be required to wear NASCAR-style jackets to show all their corporate sponsors.
On defense, the liberal Stein said she would ban all drone strikes and Johnson said he would cut defense spending by 43% (to 2003 levels). The conservative Goode, a former congressman from Virginia who has the rough-boned look of a Civil War officer, concurred, saying: “The United States should stop trying to be the overseer of the world. That would save us billions and billions of dollars.”
Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City and an outspoken liberal, called the National Defense Authorization Act that allows detention of citizens “the very definition of tyranny.” No one on stage disagreed. The act has been supported by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
The “transpartisan” debate was not all a love-in, though. Johnson said he would get rid of federal college loans, which he said had contributed to the artificially high price of education. The Green Party’s Stein said she favored free college for all modeled on the post-World War II GI Bill. Rebutted Johnson: “Free comes with a cost. Free is spending more money than you take in…. Free has gotten us to the point we are going to experience a monetary collapse in this country.”
Goode had some of the most dramatic prescriptions. He said he would instantly balance the federal budget with massive cuts and not tax increases. He said he would block all green card admissions of immigrants to the U.S. until the unemployment rate dropped below 5%. “We need jobs in America for U.S. citizens first,” Goode said, acknowledging that many in the crowd would not like what he had to say.
Everyone but Goode agreed that the U.S. should legalize marijuana. The three -- Stein, Johnson and Anderson -- said the criminalization of the drug had led to massive imprisonment rates that far outstrip the rest of the world’s, and huge costs that cannot be sustained. The three also bemoaned the total lack of attention to climate change in the main presidential contest. Anderson called it “a greater long-term risk to the United States than terrorism.”
In the last of six questions, the four were asked what one amendment they would like to make to the U.S. Constitution. The two small-government candidates -- Johnson and Goode -- said they would impose term limits on Congress, assessing that the change would get lawmakers to focus more on policy and less on reelection. Stein advocated a change to limit spending by corporations in elections. Anderson said he had “already written” an amendment that -- like the scuttled Equal Rights Amendment -- would give equal protection under the law to women, and also to people regardless of their sexual orientation.
Campaign professionals have said that a vote for one of the four would be wasted because it would only take away from one of the sure winners, Obama or Romney. But Johnson disputed that notion in his closing statement.
“Wasting your vote is voting for somebody you don’t believe in,” Johnson said. “I am asking everyone watching this nationwide to waste your vote on me … and then I’m the next president of the United States.”
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