Romney is right: Gary Johnson should be on the debate stage

Conservatives took up a new rallying cry after Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 election and as the Obama administration’s foreign policy proved itself a hollow sham again and again. Romney was right, that rallying cry went.

During the 2012 campaign, Romney correctly labeled Russia a geopolitical foe, and he was roundly mocked because of it by members of the liberal establishment from President Obama to Hillary Clinton on down the line. He also warned of terrorism in Mali long before most of us had ever heard of Boko Haram, and was similarly criticized by Obama’s defenders in the media.

Earlier this year, Romney was right again with his vociferous criticism of Donald Trump, and he hasn’t backed down from that stance since Trump became the nominee. Indeed, he recently expressed hope that the Libertarian ticket of former Govs. Gary Johnson and Bill Weld would appear on the debate stage alongside the Republican and Democratic tickets.

Romney isn’t alone in this desire. Poll after poll has shown a majority of likely voters want to see Johnson on that debate stage alongside Trump and Clinton. That’s different than saying they’d vote for the former Republican governor of New Mexico, of course, but given the record-setting disappointment with the major-party candidates, it’s no surprise so many Americans are expressing interest in the Libertarian ticket.

A Gary Johnson supporter at a rally in New York on Saturday. Mark Kauzlarich | Reuters

A Gary Johnson supporter at a rally in New York on Saturday. Mark Kauzlarich | Reuters

Access to the presidential debates is restricted by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which requires candidates to have ballot access in enough states to win the election and to be polling at or above 15 percent. For the two major parties, these requirements aren’t hurdles at all, but for third-party and independent candidates they’re often seemingly insurmountable ones. Johnson has been consistently polling in or near the double digits, though he hasn’t been hitting that magical number of 15 percent. However, the last time a third-party candidate was on that stage, Ross Perot in 1992, he wasn’t polling at 15 percent either after his bizarre withdrawal and re-entry into the race.

It’s not unreasonable for the commission to have standards. We saw during the Republican presidential primaries earlier this election cycle what an overly crowded debate stage looks like, and it wasn’t pretty. However, the standards should be focused on ballot access rather than a handful of polls. If that means raising the standards so that one has to get on the ballot in more states, that should definitely be considered.

For this election, though, the commission has a decision to make.

True, it’s already set clear standards for debate participation, but that happened long before it was clear that so many Americans would be disenchanted with the major party nominees. The Commission on Presidential Debates — which includes Maine’s own former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe — could reverse course. Its members could heed the calls of many Americans who want to see Johnson onstage, including a number of newspapers, prominent politicians, and individual members of the commission.

Now is the time for the commission to take that step. Now is the time for them to show to the American people that they’re more than just a gatekeeper for the two major parties — that they’re truly independent and nonpartisan. To her credit, Snowe has long advocated for a more inclusive kind of politics and earned a reputation throughout her career for rising above the petty partisanship that has engulfed Washington, D.C. of late. She can further cement that legacy by listening to Romney and others who want to see Johnson debate, and by encouraging her fellow commissioners to do the same.

Right now, the country is hoping for a more inclusive presidential debate. If that happens, people might find a candidate they want to vote for and not merely settle for the lesser of two evils.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.