Libertarian Presidential Candidate Jo Jorgensen will be the second straight Libertarian Presidential Candidate to appear on all 50 state ballots. She will not be on the Presidential debate stage tonight. Her campaign and her supporters have made hay of the fact she’s not being allowed to appear. They’ve created the hashtag #letherspeak, with her campaign putting out a blistering video to promote the hashtag. She insists that the decision of the Commission on Presidential Debates doesn’t serve the interests of American people but those of the two major parties.  

In principle, I agree with the Libertarian Party and the Jorgensen campaign. In my ideal world, Presidential debates would include all candidates on enough ballots to win the electoral college should appear on the debate stage and voters sort out who is and is not a serious candidate.  At the very least, it seems the commission could offer a third-party debate with Howie Hawkins of the Green Party (the only other candidate on enough ballots to get to 270 electoral votes) right before the main event similar to the undercard GOP debates in 2016 to give the American people the full range of options to appear on the ballot. However, we don’t live in my ideal world and we never have.  

The Commission on Presidential Debates has set essentially the same criteria for participation for a quarter of a century. A candidate needs to be on enough ballots to win 270 electoral votes, and they have to have an average of fifteen percent in polls leading up to the debate. The Libertarian Party knew those rules for the past four years. They complain about “the duopoly” and the need to get their candidate on the stage, but what have they done to effectively reach a core of voters and build a strong enough party to achieve the numbers the commission requires? 

Nothing much at all. The Libertarians’ main action, ironically, was to appeal to the government to solve their presidential debate problem. They filed a failed lawsuit demanding the polling threshold be dropped as a requirement.  There seems to have been little thought to potential unintended consequences such as states making ballot access laws more arduous, if ballot access alone becomes a qualifier for Presidential debates. Beyond that, the Libertarian Party’s main problem persists. It’s too hung up on their own petty rules and ideological division to be able to grow.

Jacob Hornberger, runner up to Jorgensen, who actually led the first ballot at the party’s convention, went so far as to say, “votes don’t matter,” and showed no interest in reaching anyone outside the party. When that sort of attitude plays such a large role in the party, it’s not going to grow. 

The Libertarian Party has done nothing in four years to achieve the requirement for debate participation that they’ve known about since the Macarena was the latest dance craze. And now Jorgensen’s campaign’s biggest tactic is to do what every Libertarian candidate does every four years: complain about not being in the debates. The candidate complains each time after four years of the Libertarians failing to do anything different than they have before. That’s not a history that should elicit sympathy. 

There is a legitimate case against having the Libertarians in the debate, whether you agree with or not. Either Donald Trump or Joe Biden will be President of the United States on January 20, 2021. One of them will be in charge of the world’s biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons and have to deal with a global pandemic and an economy in crisis. The Presidential debates give voters the chance to see these two candidates face off against each other. If you throw in four candidates (with Jorgensen and Hawkins), you’re either going to either have to cut the number of debate topics in half or you’re going to have to have to double the length of time for the debate, making it harder for the American people to follow. Should this really be done in service of two candidates who won’t get five percent of the vote combined?

Many in the Libertarian Party insist the only reason for the Commission’s refusal is stopping their party’s success. Appearance on the Presidential debate stage is viewed as making it, as the grand opportunity for the Party. The problem is that while the Libertarian Party hasn’t had a candidate on the Presidential debate stage, they’ve had numerous candidates in debates for House, Senate, and Governor across America. The winning percentage of Libertarian nominees for House, Senate, and Governor over the last 48 years is 0%. So much for the magic of appearing in the debates. 

Under the rules laid out by the Commission on Presidential Debates, appearing in a debate is not an opportunity to build a healthy, competitive, third-party movement, it’s a reward for having done so. If a movement is ever to succeed, it has to acknowledge how the world is and figure out how to make it better. The Libertarian Party has refused to do that. 

In my opinion, the Commission’s standards for participation are too high and we need to see a challenge to the major parties. But that challenge will come from a Party that wants to do the work required to build a coalition and win elections and with leadership that understands and is willing to deal with the complexity of that process. The Libertarian Party is like a football coach with only one play in their fall campaign playbook, and they keep running it election after election and losing. No one’s doing anyone any favors by pretending that losing play ought to succeed. 

Jo Jorgensen shouldn’t be on the debate stage because it’s a privilege, and her party hasn’t earned it. If they continue to view it as a right and to demand it without working for it, they will continue to get to futilely complain about being denied every four years. If they ever want a nominee actually to make it on the stage, the Libertarians had better face reality and do the work necessary to make that happen. 

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