Beer and Debates

"Ladies and gentlemen, this year, this Bud's not for you," the American Reform Party (ARP), a Reform Party splinter group, announced in January, telling members to stop drinking Anheuser-Busch beers, including Budweiser and Michelob.

Why boycott beer? After all, Donald Trump, the famously teetotaling tycoon who briefly contemplated angling for the nomination, has withdrawn. And this was, until recently, the party of regular guy Jesse Ventura. Shouldn't beer be, like, part of the platform?

It's not that the Reform Party has anything against beer. What it objects to is Anheuser-Busch's corporate sponsorship of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

Recently, the debate commission announced that candidates had to command at least 15 percent in popular support to be included in the three presidential debates to air nationally later this year. This threshold--three times higher than what is required for national party recognition by the Federal Election Commission--will make it "virtually impossible" for any Reform Party nominee or other independents to qualify for the debates, according to Doug Friedline of the Reform Party.

The commission argues that the 15 percent threshold ensures that only serious presidential contenders will participate. The presidential debates are "not a time to introduce a candidate or jump start a campaign," said Janet Brown, executive director of the CPD. Since up to 100 candidates (at least 90 of whom you've likely never heard of) run in the typical presidential race, expansive inclusiveness would simply make the debates too unwieldy. "That's a red herring," said Jack Gargan, the now deposed chairman of the Reform Party, because using the CPD's two other prerequisites--constitutional eligibility and access to enough state ballots to theoretically secure 270 votes in the Electoral College to win the presidency--would already winnow the field to six or seven candidates only.

Critics say that, by relying on the 15 percent popular approval threshold to determine viability of candidates, the CPD is overstepping its purpose: whether or not a candidate is electable is a judgment not for the commission to make before the debates, but for voters to make after.

If the 15 percent bar had been applied at the state level, Ventura would have lost in Minnesota. Ventura, who entered the debates at 10 percent in the polls, was able to emerge with 37 percent of the votes after participating, and doing well, in the televised debates. Similarly, if the 15 percent requirement had existed in 1992, Ross Perot would have been excluded from the debates (he was running at only 10 percent before the first debate was held); he would therefore not have been able to call attention to NAFTA, the national debt, or other issues of interest to the electorate. Indeed, there's evidence that the inclusion of a third candidate made the debates more interesting: Viewership for the 1992 ménage à trois with Perot topped 90 million, but dropped to 41 million in 1996 when Perot was barred. "[This] meant that the two pro-NAFTA, pro-GATT, pro-corporate, soft-money candidates were left to debate in peace," The Nation editorialized.

Several third parties have suggested an alternative to the 15 percent rule: that any nationally recognized party with enough popular support to qual-ify for matching funds be allowed to enter its nominee into the debate. So far, the CPD has refused, fueling suspicions that the commission really masks a collusion between the Republicans and Democrats to "corner the market forever on the presidency," as Pat Buchanan put it.

The notion that the "nonpartisan" commission is really bipartisan isn't entirely groundless: The two parties collaborated to wrest control of the debates from the League of Women Voters in the mid-1980s, and the CPD's two co-chairs are the former heads of the Republican and Democratic national committees, respectively. A 1986 blueprint of the commission explicitly noted, "The question of third-party candidates should not undermine the goal of institutionalizing debates between the Democratic and Republican party candidates."

"The debates are driven by the corporate mentality, which says that the only ones who count are the big ones," said Reform Party press secretary Dan Torgersen. Corporate sponsors of the CPD have included Philip Morris, AT&T, IBM, and Sprint, who in return for their contributions receive ringside tickets to the debates, written recognition in all promotional material, and access to receptions after the event. They simultaneously donate to both parties (Philip Morris donated more than $2.6 million in the 1996 election cycle), which Perot unsuccessfully called an "illegal campaign contribution" in a 1996 lawsuit. There is a nice mutual aid program here. Big corporations support major parties. The major parties, in turn, help the corporations. And the same corporations underwrite a debate process that makes it harder for outsider candidates and parties to crack the system.

Meanwhile, Torgersen is eager to enlist other third parties in the Anheuser-Busch beer boycott. Torgersen is not, it should be noted, asking other third parties to give up beer altogether. He himself is drinking a substitute beer called Uffda. Why Uffda? Because the company's president is from the proportional representation-practicing Norway, and because "Uffda" is the Norwegian equivalent to the Yiddish "oy-vey," an expression of frustration and exactly how Torgersen feels about the CPD.