A Campaign Against the Commission on Presidential Debates

This is the third essay in a three-part series. This essay will detail the campaign a hypothetical future third-party presidential candidate who makes use of the tactics described in the first and second essays, which discuss peaceful and forceful tactics, respectively.

In the weeks leading up to every United States presidential election, a series of debates between the candidates are held. When the current series of regular debates began in 1976, this was handled by the League of Women Voters. By 1987, the Republican and Democratic parties decided to take over control of the debates by creating the Commission on Presidential Debates, which was co-chaired by Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul G. Kirk, the Republican and Democratic national chairmen at the time. The CPD has controlled all presidential debates involving Republican and Democratic candidates since 1988. With the sole exception of Ross Perot in 1992, all third-party candidates have been excluded from the debates since its inception, and they have now succeeded in doing so for the 2016 election cycle.

Various efforts to resolve this matter peacefully, such as protests, lawsuits, boycotts of debate sponsors, and the organization of other presidential debates have failed. The use of force to remedy this situation is morally justifiable, but no candidate has yet showed a willingness to resort to such methods. But as this may not always be the case, let us now consider a hypothetical future election in which there is a third-party candidate who decides to use force to either get onto the debate stage or shut down the CPD’s activities.

The Candidate

Let us call our candidate Aurelius. Aurelius is a tall, imposing man of forty. He is well read, both inside and outside of the libertarian philosophical tradition. He has a quick wit, a sharp tongue, and a gift for public oratory. His personal views on issues are rather reactionary, and he distances himself from the hedonism embraced by some libertarians. He is a man who has endured much hardship at the hands of government agents, and he will have his vengeance. But he knows that taking power by force, even if he intends to dismantle that power from the inside out, is a hard sell in a democratic system. He also knows that the Republicans and Democrats want nothing to do with anyone who is as radical and controversial as him, and he is the wrong sort of radical for the Green Party. As such, he decides to run for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination. (We will assume that no other right-leaning third party becomes a better avenue for his candidacy in the next eight years.)

2016-2020

Aurelius makes his first attempt as soon as he is old enough to be constitutionally eligible for the Presidency in 2020 and is narrowly defeated, but only on account of shenanigans pulled by the party establishment to deny the nomination to a firebrand revolutionary in favor of yet another milquetoast mediocrity. Not deterred by this disappointment, he strengthens his resolve. His concession speech at the 2020 Libertarian National Convention blasts the party establishment and the nominee, intensifying a rift within the party. This gives him mainstream press coverage for several days for his bold rhetoric and controversial views, but then the press largely moves on.

In mainstream politics, the 2016 election turns out to be not as important as most people thought. Donald Trump has been elected and fails to deliver on his lofty campaign promises, the gridlock in Washington continues, as does the economic stagnation and growing political divide throughout the nation. In the 2020 election, Trump seeks re-election, a radical progressive wins the Democratic nomination, and third parties are denied a fair chance yet again. This also offers no relief, as no one in a position of power understands the problems facing America. As the 2024 campaign season approaches, America is ripe for revolution, and it is only a question of who will begin the revolt, where and when it will happen, why it will be done, and whether the revolution will be political or anti-political.

2021-2023

Aurelius spends most of these years touring the United States, giving speeches, making alliances, performing outreach, training people in electioneering, and doing everything else that is necessary to set up his campaign strategy for 2024.

2023 – Second Half

In September 2023, Aurelius announces that he has formed an exploratory committee for a potential presidential campaign and filed the necessary paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. During the next few months, Aurelius and his surrogates discuss his plans with his SuperPAC as well as with local militia groups all over the nation, many of which he has played some part in establishing or expanding over the past few years. The exploratory committee does not do as much work as many have done historically because Aurelius has spent several years carefully considering campaigns slogans and themes, developing media appeals, and writing position papers and speeches. He realizes that endorsements from powerful individuals and groups would actually harm his cause, as it would diminish his credibility to have their blessing. Aurelius is also quite wary of hiring consultants and pollsters, recalling how the Gary Johnson campaign in 2016 spent entirely too much on consultants who provided far too little service for the pay they received. His exploratory committee does act more normally in hiring staff and in organizing state campaigns. Aurelius focuses on swing states, particularly Ohio, as he is determined to make a difference one way or another.

On September 27, the CPD announces that the presidential debates are scheduled for September 25, October 8, and October 14, 2024, with the vice-presidential debate scheduled for October 3. Five venues are named; one for each of the aforementioned events and one alternate location. These locations are passed on to the militia groups so that they can make strategic assessments.

On October 26, the CPD announces its criteria for inclusion in the debates. As always, they are designed to exclude all non-duopoly candidates, requiring 15 percent across five national polls. Aurelius begins publicly condemning the CPD but does not disclose his eventual plans.

On December 21, Aurelius announces that he is running for the 2024 Libertarian nomination for President of the United States. After this time, Aurelius uses unofficial surrogates and former campaign staff to relay messages to supporting SuperPACs, knowing that his campaign will likely be given more scrutiny by the Federal Election Commission than the major-party campaigns, which regularly violate the ban on SuperPAC coordination with impunity.

2024 – First Quarter

Aurelius spends the first quarter of 2024 raising money, getting his supporters to attend state party conventions and become delegates to the nominating convention, strategizing with liberty groups on college campuses, and debating the other Libertarian candidates. His opponents consist of the usual Libertarian field; several nobodies who run to make a name for themselves with no serious chance at the nomination, a former politician of a major party with non-standard views for that party, a few professionals in non-political fields, and a libertarian activist or two. Their views of Aurelius range from fear of his boldness and disgust at his right-libertarianism to agreement with most of his positions but not with the means he is willing to use. His poll numbers start off somewhat low but steadily rise as he outperforms his challengers in debate after debate.

In early March, Aurelius speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, just as several Libertarian candidates have done before him. He offers himself as an alternative for disaffected conservatives and far-rightists who are disappointed in Trump’s performance and do not like the Republican frontrunner in the 2024 primaries. He uses the opportunity to attack the Republican and Democratic frontrunners as well as the CPD. In late March, the first televised Libertarian primary debate of the season airs, and Aurelius is among the participants. He presents himself and his candidacy well, getting the attention of many voters and pundits for the first time.

2024 – Second Quarter

The Republicans and Democrats have their nominees all but secured by April, and most Americans are none too happy with their choices. Aurelius and the former major-party politician opposing him in the primary gain attention as a result, as the nobodies are forgotten and the other candidates who are invited to primary debates prove no match for the two frontrunners. The campaign between the two gets nastier, and the rift opened at the 2020 convention grows wider.

This comes to a head at the nominating convention in May. Aurelius narrowly manages to secure the nomination after two ballots, but tempers flare during the vice-presidential nomination as the establishment wing of the party tries to saddle Aurelius with the former politician who opposed him rather than give him the running mate of his choice. This vote goes through several ballots, but Aurelius finally manages to win over the room with a rousing speech.

Just as Trump’s candidacy altered the composition of the Republican Party eight years earlier, Aurelius’s nomination alters the composition of the Libertarian Party. The former major-party politician walks out of the convention, several party stalwarts resign their posts, and many left-libertarians either leave the party or decide not to support the nominee in the general election. This has an impact, but many Aurelius supporters have already entered the party and more than outnumber those who leave. Aurelius gives another powerful speech denouncing those who abandoned the Libertarian Party over his candidacy.

The General Campaign Begins

Aurelius does a round of interviews following his nomination, and it quickly becomes clear to everyone that he is not the calm, soft-spoken, non-threat to the establishment that past Libertarian nominees have been. Talk of a three-way race begins, and pollsters being including Aurelius in their surveys. The first surveys show him at a startling 10 percent of the vote, with both major-party candidates near 40 percent and the rest either undecided or supporting other third-party candidates. The establishment becomes nervous to an extent that they have not been since the Trump campaign of 2016, though for different reasons. In June, the CPD names moderators for the debates. Aurelius and his running mate participate in a live town hall on June 26.

In July, the Aurelius SuperPAC begins airing campaign advertisements, but carries out a novel strategy of attacking the CPD as much as promoting the candidate. The reason for this is to vilify the CPD and make the American people hate them in order to make countermeasures against them more palatable. These anti-CPD ads continue airing through the middle of September, with several ads left on the back burner for various possibilities in late September and October. When asked about this in interviews, Aurelius declares that he is come to fight the enemies of the American people, and that the CPD is the first such enemy that he must defeat. He assures the press that he will not allow the CPD to silence him or his supporters, but stands up to media pressure when asked to divulge the full meaning of this, saying that he will not reveal his strategies to his enemies and the establishment press can find out when everyone else does. Most interviewers move on to other topics, but Aurelius does walk out on one interviewer who will not stop trying to discern his plans.

In August, Aurelius supporters on the college campuses chosen by the CPD ally with other third-party and non-partisan liberty groups to acquire as many debate tickets as possible in an effort to disrupt the debate, especially at the campus chosen for the first presidential debate. His poll numbers slowly move upward into the low teens, prompting the establishment press to dig deeper into his background and question him more rigorously in interviews in an effort to derail his candidacy. But unlike many previous third-party candidates, Aurelius does not gaffe or back down, having a strong answer for everything they throw at him. Aurelius and his running mate participate in more live town halls on August 7 and 21. Aurelius finishes getting nationwide ballot access in late August.

Showdown With The CPD

In September, the major-party candidates are worried. The final polls which are used to determine debate access have Aurelius in the neighborhood of 15 percent. The surrogates for both duopoly candidates are scrambling to try to convince voters not to support Aurelius, warning them that “a vote for Aurelius is a vote for the other duopoly candidate” and “electing such an extremist endangers the republic.” He effortlessly slaps down their arguments. Both major-party candidates wish for the CPD to exclude Aurelius despite having poll numbers which could qualify him to debate. The CPD responds by choosing the five polls which have Aurelius at the lowest level of support for its average, giving him 14 percent support and the CPD an excuse to exclude him.

Later that week, the plan to disrupt the debates by filling the audiences with hecklers is discovered. The CPD decides to cancel all of the admission tickets, hold the first debate without an audience, and let Republican and Democratic party officials decide who to let into the audience for the other three debates. Aurelius disavows any direct involvement in this plan, saying that it was the work of his supporters as well as concerned citizens who seek fair debates. However, he expresses sympathy toward the means and the end. Interviewers again pressure him to divulge any more plans for disruption that he might have, but he still refuses.

On September 21, scouts for the militia groups show up to the five debate venues in plain clothing. Some of them enter the venues, hide until late at night, then open the doors to allow a large number of militia members to enter each venue with enough armament and supplies to carry out an occupation for the duration of the scheduled debate season. They allow non-militia members to leave the buildings but not enter, as they do not wish to create a hostage situation. On the morning of September 22, everyone becomes aware of the situation and an armed standoff ensues between the militia groups and federal agents. The militias demand either fair debates or none at all, and inform all concerned parties that more groups are ready to respond to any hastily organized plans to hold CPD events elsewhere or retaliate if federal agents massacre them. Aurelius is contacted by federal agents and the media, and he informs both that he will hold a press conference at noon the next day to discuss the situation and will not discuss the matter with anyone until then. The two major-party candidates give campaign speeches in which they denounce Aurelius and the militia groups.

At noon on September 23, Aurelius delivers a lengthy address explaining the history of the CPD, its role in determining who can become President and who cannot, and the reasons why the tactics used by his supporters are necessary and proper. He answers all of the objections raised by the major-party candidates, the press, and the CPD over the past 36 hours. He leaves enough plausible deniability for himself in order to avoid conspiracy charges, but makes clear that he stands with the militia groups and welcomes their efforts in his fight against the CPD.

Negotiators attempt to dissuade the militias from their occupation, and representatives for the militia groups attempt to dissuade the CPD from its policies, but both sides refuse to budge. The establishment press does its best to vilify Aurelius and the militia groups, but alternative media personalities along with his speeches, supporters, and campaign ads largely blunt their efforts. The desperation of the American people to finally have real change that the Republicans and Democrats have continually failed to bring them makes many of them sympathize with Aurelius and his supporters, even if they view their methods as extreme. The CPD and major-party candidates decide to cancel the first debate on September 25 rather than risk a battle at the debate site, and no press outlets offer to hold a debate elsewhere, heeding the warning from the militias.

Possible Outcomes

At this point, the ball is squarely in the court of the CPD, major-party candidates, and federal agents. How they decide to respond from here on out is difficult to predict, but let us consider some likely possibilities. The best outcome is that the CPD relents and allows Aurelius to debate. However, it is difficult to imagine the major-party candidates agreeing to debate under such circumstances. They would be more likely to deliver some rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists. Thus, a lack of presidential debates in the 2024 election would likely result. But from Aurelius’s perspective, this is a superior result to one in which they debate and he does not.

Another peaceful resolution would involve working out an agreement with the establishment press, Aurelius and his running mate, the major-party candidates and their running mates, and any other relevant third-party campaigns. In lieu of the CPD events, the networks could air 30-minute segments with each of the candidates. This is more likely than having a multi-candidate debate with the CPD’s involvement, but it is still a somewhat remote possibility.

As we are dealing with an armed standoff, it will not do to leave the possibility of violence unexamined. There are five major concerns in this regard; a medical issue, a surrender, a move against Aurelius, a false move, and a move-in order. Given the duration of the occupation from several days before the first scheduled debate until at least one day after the last scheduled debate, it is quite possible for someone to have a medical issue of some kind that must be addressed. If this happens, then a militia member will need to leave the premises. It is almost certain that the person will be placed under arrest, and the person would do well to accept this and be transported to a local hospital. A surrender by some members of a militia group would function almost identically, except that they would be transported to a police station rather than a hospital. The issue here is that government agents have been known to exact a blood price against a resistance movement by killing a member who is surrendering. While this in isolation could create sympathy for the militia groups and by extension, the Aurelius campaign, shots being fired in response by the militia members could needlessly escalate the matter into a pitched battle. The militia members would certainly have difficulty in holding their fire in such a case, but they would need to do so.

Given the entirety of the situation, it is quite likely that the government would attempt to break the occupation by neutralizing the person(s) on whose behalf they are acting. It would not be difficult for prosecutors to trump up charges upon which to arrest Aurelius (and any other third-party candidates who may stand to benefit from the occupation). Given the history of candidates continuing to run for office while in jail, this is unlikely to have a major effect, except that Aurelius would be hindered in his ability to deliver speeches. There is a chance that an unstable member of a militia could use this as an excuse to start shooting, and the other militia members would need to be prepared for this possibility and contain that individual. An assassination attempt against Aurelius by the establishment cannot be ruled out, but this would signal desperation and inspire a more direct revolution than that proposed by Aurelius, as it would make a martyr of a person who has 15 percent support to become President.

Much like the first two concerns, a false move by either side could have disastrous results, and it is imperative for the militia members and the Aurelius campaign that any such flinch occur on the part of the federal agents and not the militia groups. It is standard procedure for governments to provoke armed resistance movements into firing a first shot so that they have justification to respond with overwhelming force. The occupiers must not fall for any such provocations if they are to maintain proper public perception.

Finally, it is possible that the state may allow the occupations to go on for a time, but finally decide to move in and crush the militia groups. If this happens, then a battle with hundreds of casualties on both sides is probably unavoidable. Fortunately, recent history suggests that this is unlikely, given the results of the Bundy standoffs as well as the blowback and negative press that resulted from more aggressive postures in previous standoffs.

Conclusion

It is impossible to predict the outcome of the 2024 election without knowing how the standoff is resolved. One could not even say for certain that there would be an election if battles occur at the debate sites and unrest grows to the point of civil war. After all, history shows us that great wars can be started by a single shot, and that shot may occur at any place and time. But as the most likely result is a campaign season without presidential debates, a peaceful end to the occupations, and efforts to bring the militia members to trial stretching several years into the future, let us assume that the election does go forward and that Aurelius performs much better than most third-party candidates due to his oratory skills, level playing field with respect to presidential debates, and increased exposure due to the armed standoffs.

A victory for Aurelius would have the political establishment scared for their lives, and they may lash out violently against the American people. He could use the presidential pardon to immunize the militia members as well as himself against any charges related to the occupations, effectively normalizing armed resistance. This would represent a massive cultural shift in a pro-liberty direction unlike anything in time memorial, although it may lead to a civil war between the political establishment and Aurelius’s supporters. This would also have the effect of keeping Aurelius from becoming tyrannical, as armed resistance could turn on him if he did. A narrow defeat may have similar cultural effects, though the boot of state power would aim to crush the Aurelius faction instead of being worn by it.

A massive defeat for Aurelius would indicate a complete failure in messaging or tactics, and would be the likely result of the militias firing first or Aurelius going too far with his rhetoric. This might speed up the efforts to subject the militia members to the criminal punishment system, as the election result would make clear that popular opinion is against them. This result would indicate that no remedy is to be found through political means, so the options for those who desire liberty are to continue suffering or revolt.

Whatever the final result may be, one thing is certain: a campaign against the Commission on Presidential Debates would change the political landscape forever.

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