Hillary Clinton’s comments about Tusli Gabbard and Jill Stein are problematic for one obvious reason and one subtle reason. Let’s go through the obvious reason to get it out of the way. As Tom Nichols, professor of International Relations at the U.S. Naval War College and at the Harvard Extension School, put it in a beautifully succinct tweet, “Jill Stein's relationship with Russia is deeply suspect; Tulsi Gabbard's coziness with Russian and Syria propaganda rule her out as president and should rule her out of Congress. But as usual, nothing is served by Hillary cannonballing into the pool. Back to impeachment, please.” The point is that anti-establishment liberals do not want to hear anything that Hillary Clinton has to say and the fact that she voiced these criticisms of Gabbard and Stein undermine those criticisms in anti-establishment liberals’ eyes. Moreover, Gabbard, who has been polling at less than 1%, has almost no chance of winning the Democratic nomination right now unless something very unpredictable happens, something like Clinton putting the spotlight on her to boost her name recognition. Liberals can only hope that the Streisand effect will not kick in and everyone will forget about Clinton and Gabbard and Stein again as soon as possible.
Now for the subtle reason that Clinton’s comments are problematic: Democrats and Republicans alike are afraid of third party candidates and they are willing to undermine the electoral process in order to maintain the two-party duopoly. Clinton’s attack on Gabbard and Stein are perfect illustrations of that fear. Stein is the leader of the Green Party and would likely siphon off votes from the Democrats if she were given a platform. Gabbard is very popular among isolationist anti-Trump Republicans and conservative Democrats, and if she were able to run as a third-party candidate, she would no doubt siphon off votes from both parties. The Democrats and Republicans know this, and so leaders like Clinton are attacking Stein and Gabbard in order to shore up their liberal base. Meanwhile, Trump is boosting them on twitter in order to hurt the Democrats.
But all of this is disingenuous in a certain sense because Clinton’s attack on these candidates, especially Stein, implies that third-party candidates have a fair shot in the first place. In reality, they do not have a fair shot, and Clinton knows that, which is yet another reason why Clinton’s comments are so baffling. What many onlookers may not realize is that the Democrats and Republicans have already ensured that third parties have almost no chance to challenge either of the two largest parties in the general election because they are not allowed to participate in presidential debates. The presidential debates are run by an organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which is composed of both Republicans and Democrats. Together, both parties run the presidential debates and exclude third-party candidates explicitly. So while candidates like Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders might otherwise run as third-party candidates, they are running as Democrats simply because they would not be able to have a shot at winning the Presidency if they did not.
The CPD has been controversial since its creation in 1987 when it took over control of the Presidential debates from the League of Women Voters (LWV), which had organized the debates starting in 1976. The CPD was created by the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties specifically in order to "take control of the Presidential debates" from the LWV. The LWV was still invited to sponsor the debates at first. But this became untenable when, in 1988, secret negotiations between the two parties were revealed to control which candidates could participate in the debates, which questions would be asked, who the moderators would be, and how the podiums on stage would be designed. The LWV withdrew its support immediately, stating that, “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.” However, this criticism went largely unheeded, and the CPD has hosted all of the presidential debates since 1988.
The LWV is not the only group that criticized the CPD in its early days. The CPD was widely condemned for the way it treated Reform Party candidate Ross Perot in the mid-1990s. While the CPD did allow Ross Perot to participate in all three debates in 1992 when he was polling at 7%, it excluded him from all of the debates in 1996 when he was polling at 19%. Washington Post political columnist David Broder accused the CPD of “playing games” with the selection process and wrote that “the commission overreached in protecting the major-party nominees” by excluding Perot. The New York Times also stated that “by deciding yesterday to exclude Ross Perot from this year’s debates, the commission proved itself to be a tool of the two dominant parties rather than a guardian of the public interest.”
In 2000, the CPD established an arbitrary rule that all candidates must poll at 15% or more in order to participate in the presidential debates. This rule effectively eliminates all third party candidates from participating. That same year, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) stating that corporate contributions to the CPD violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, which regulates campaign spending and fundraising. This lawsuit failed in 2005. Lawsuits have been filed every year since then on grounds that the CPD rule violates FEC rules or on anti-trust grounds because of the fact that the third-party candidates cannot compete for the Presidential salary of $400,000. So far, all lawsuits have failed.
The reason these lawsuits fail is that they have not been championed by anyone within the two major parties. Without pressure from within the parties, the CPD will never be abolished. In the past, the likelihood that a candidate from within either party would focus on reforming the CPD has been almost zero. That is due to the fact that, in the past, most of the candidates have been establishment politicians for whom the rules are an advantage, not a hindrance. But in the Trump era, that could change. With outsider candidates running in both parties and outperforming establishment candidates, it is not out of the realm of possibility that one of these outsiders would win their party’s nomination and then push to reform the CPD.
It would be in Gabbard’s interest to focus on this issue and try to be that outsider candidate who reforms the CPD. Gabbard is unlikely to win the nomination, granted, but if she makes reforming the debates her signature issue and wins attention for it, she could influence other outsider candidates (or those who want to claim outsider status) like Sanders and Yang to take up the issue as well. Then, should Sanders or Yang win and push for reform, Gabbard could position herself to participate in the debates as an independent candidate. Is this a long shot strategy? Sure. But Gabbard is a long-shot candidate.
Gabbard could definitely play this angle effectively. She has already shown a willingness to criticize the Democratic primary debates, claiming that their arbitrary polling thresholds prevent voters from having an opportunity to get to know all of the candidates equally. Earlier this month Gabbard ripped the DNC’s “pseudo-polls” and “arbitrary requirements,” accusing the committee of “trying to hold their own primary election before the primary election even begins. The DNC and their corporate media partners are essentially trying to hijack this election process away from the responsibility that voters have.” Though this stunt didn’t win her many points with mainstream liberals, she did catch some sympathy from anti-establishment liberals who are open to criticisms of the DNC and wary of DNC mischief-making following the disastrous 2016 elections.
If Gabbard builds on this stunt by targeting the DNC debates and the CPD, she could create a future opportunity for herself should a front runner take up the position as well. Her conservative voters respond well to this position in part because they think it will open the door for Leftist third-party candidates like Jill Stein, who will hurt the Democrats. But it will also open the door for right-wing third-party candidates and independents who could siphon off votes from Trump. Gabbard is almost perfectly positioned between the two parties to build a coalition of isolationist conservatives and conservative Democrats, and pulling off the downfall of the CPD would gain her enough notoriety to challenge the other frontrunners in the 2020 election, including Trump. Should the Streisand effect kick in following Clinton’s unwanted criticism, Gabbard could make history with this issue. She has already laid the groundwork for the move with the stunt about possibly boycotting the DNC debates. She should take that argument further and announce her intention to reform the CPD if it does not allow third-parties and independents into the presidential debates. That could be her path to victory.