Why Ralph and Pat Should Be in the Debates

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Teamsters president James P. Hoffa thinks that Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan should be included in the fall presidential debates. Good idea.

Normally, you would not invite Nader, Hoffa and Buchanan to the same dinner party. But anti-globalization makes strange bedfellows, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. What unites the three now, in Hoffa's mind anyway, is the sullen desperation of the excluded. Excluded from what? The festival of the Nasdaq, the great gated community of the Bobos, the money fair. Teamster Hoffa all but endorses the Green Party's Nader as a friend of American labor and an enemy of the NAFTA, GATT, and normalization of relations with China. Buchanan, says Hoffa, is good on globalization (meaning he's against it) but not so great on other labor issues (health and safety laws, for example).

Nader and Buchanan — each a throwback to '60s configurations, the one a countercultural enviro-saint and the other an old Nixon gunslinger, the two now, oddly, working the same side of the economic street — would bring authenticity, a depth and passion of thought, to what will otherwise be dimensionless debates, turning, as in the past, upon such fatuities as "I paid for this microphone!" and "Where's the beef?"

The Presidential Debate Commission's rules state that a candidate must register at least 15 percent in the opinion polls in order to join the debates. I suppose the commission needs a criterion, some qualifying poll percentage. Otherwise, how could they exclude, say, the Ovolactarian Party's candidate from the debates? But I devoutly hope that both Nader and Buchanan make it to the finals.

My reasons are not so much civic as dramatic — that is, selfish. Nader and Buchanan would make the debates interesting. Otherwise, they will be excruciating.

A debate between Gore and Bush equals a hand of five-card straight poker, nothing wild, and maybe, just to make things duller, no aces or face cards in the deck. Add Nader and Buchanan, and all of a sudden you are playing night baseball, high-low, push-crunch, deuces, treys and one-eyed jacks wild. Sloppy, but more fun. I'll see your Quemoy, and raise you Matsu.

It's my hunch that in a two-way debate, Gore v. Bush, the winner would be the governor of Texas. That's counterintuitive: Bush is short on facts and figures, and Gore is a buffed-up schoolmarm with murder in his eye. But I would tell Bush that all he has to do is to stay nice and loose, working Gore in a rope-a-dope sort of way, mocking him lightly, and wait for one of those openings that can produce a fatal sound-bite — something along the lines of Lloyd Bentsen's line in 1988: "I knew John Kennedy, and you're no John Kennedy!" (It occurred to no one at the time of that mot, which landed on Dan Quayle's jaw, that to tell a man he was no John Kennedy might actually be a compliment.)

With Nader and Buchanan in the debates, the result would be impossible to predict. Both Nader and Buchanan speak from within consistent and coherent worldviews. And each runs for the presidency with, so to speak, the integrity of hopelessness. Fighting a lost cause sharpens one's opinions. Gore and Bush are inevitably corrupted by their hopes for the office; sheer expectation deadens their language.

Experience teaches that the presidential campaign debate is a retarded and radically uninteresting art form anyway. I wish there were some way to slip Alan Keyes and Jerry Brown into this fall's game just for fun. They know how to play. A journalist friend of mine was interviewing Jerry Brown during a presidential primary campaign years ago and caught him in what looked like an absolute, shameless lie.

My friend called Brown on it. Brown did not miss a beat. His face lit up with visionary illumination. He cried: "That's fascinating! What we have here is a case of alternate realities!"