Running for president must require an inexhaustible supply of optimism from anyone who does it, to put a on a smiling face through two years of fundraisers, speeches to rotary clubs, trekking through New Hampshire winters and North Carolina summers. But to run as a third-party candidate is to undergo all that unpleasantness with no actual hope of victory at the end of it. Perhaps the only people who are willing to do so have to be slightly delusional. At least, that was the sense one got from watching the Third Party Presidential Debate hosted by the Green Party in Washington, DC, on Sunday evening. Fittingly, the event was moderated  by Ralph Nader, a man so unwilling to face the truth that he denies having cost Al Gore the election of 2000 and displays not even a hint of misgiving at his role in that campaign.
The event was held in the back room of Busboys and Poets, a minuscule venue that highlighted the laughability of the assembled candidates’ pretensions that they are seriously vying to be leader of the free world on Tuesday. The Green Party organizers were turning away journalists, even from The Nation, who had failed to RSVP sufficiently far in advance. The fact that I had called ahead and been told on by their own staffer that as a member of the press I would have no problem getting in did not seem to matter. Given their party’s and candidate’s constant whining about being shut out of media coverage, it was ironic to see how inhospitable the Greens are to some of the few reporters who do show interest in their little events. Luckily, a friend who works for Gary Johnson’s campaign helped me get in.
Nader posed a series of questions—often presenting his left-wing views as an objective premise—to the four candidates. For example, Nader demanded to know if the candidates support “corporate welfare.” Remarkably enough, they all said no. The candidates were bizarrely instructed to answer always in descending order, based on the number of states on which they have ballot access. That pecking order went as follows: former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), Jill Stein (Green Party), former Representative Virgil Goode (Constitution Party), former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson (Justice Party). Given that the candidates and Nader strongly agreed that third-party candidates are subject to unreasonable obstacles to get on state ballots, it is odd that they reified appearing on the most ballots as a measure of a candidate’s validity.
The most archetypal third party candidate was surely Gary Johnson. He is sort of the unrestrained id of all third-party candidates everywhere. He bellowed at the top of his lungs, creating an ear-piercing volume when amplified by his microphone in the small room. His opening statement launched immediately into a list of his policy positions with no introduction: “I’m against bombing Iran,” were the first words out of his mouth. “I would repeal the Patriot Act,” he continued. His style—totally lacking in narrative or “I feel your pain" anecdotes—was basically mimicked by all the candidates. They listed litanies of issue stances, rather than pulling them into a unitary case for why they should be elected. Anderson was the only one to even mention his record in public office in his opening statement. (Johnson and Goode did later illustrate points about issues by mentioning policy decisions they had made in office.) It was remarkable, watching the group, to think that any of them had ever actually won a significant elected office.
Most ridiculously, Johnson speculated repeatedly on how he could actually have won the presidency if only the powers that be gave him a fair shot. “If someone gave me $50,000, I think I’d be president,” Johnson asserted, in part of a rambling riff on campaign finance reform. Johnson also complained that the media generally reports the results of polls without including his vote share. “If it were reported that way, I might be the next president of the U.S. because of the “who the Hell is Gary Johnson? factor [of interest that would be generated].” It’s a long way from 6 percent, which is what the poll he mentioned had him at in Ohio, to a national Electoral College victory on that basis.
Perhaps the single biggest illusion to which all the candidates subscribe is that the American public actually agrees with them, despite the fact that it doesn’t vote that way. One issue on which they all agreed, for example, was to support Nader’s suggest to create a binding national popular vote referendum process. Presumably, that is because they think the public would vote their way if given the opportunity. But Stein and Anderson—who have virtually the same liberal-left views as each other—have many positions that are diametrically opposed to those of Johnson and Goode. Clearly, some of them are wrong about what the public would support. (The Constitution Party, or at least Goode, is a sort of far-right paleoconservative party. Goode outflanks Romney on social and economic issues, but has an isolationist agenda on foreign policy reminiscent of Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul.)
In many cases, they are probably all wrong. That is because they all share the premise that when the two major parties offer stagnant governance or incoherent philosophies it is because they are stymying the will of the people. But sometimes they are adhering to it. For example, polls show the American people want to balance the budget without cutting spending on entitlements and without raising taxes on the non-wealthy. This cannot be done. Referenda, as California has proven, could lead to the American people taking simplistic, ignorant stances that make governance worse, rather than better. How would Ralph Nader like it if the American people passed a referendum to prevent Congress from raising taxes without a super-majority, similar to Proposition 13 in California?
Another fallacy to which they all subscribe is that the two major parties do not present a real choice between each other. Goode, in an echo of Nader’s 2000 rallying cry, asserted that there is not, “a dime’s worth of difference,” between the Democrats and Republicans. It is certainly true that there are many choices the two parties do not present, and should, such as drug policy reform. But on many issues, including many invoked by Goode, his assertion is just false. For example, Goode repeatedly claimed to be the “only truly pro-life candidate” running for president. His position on abortion may be to the right of Romney’s. But is simply untrue to suggest that there is not a vast gulf on abortion rights between Romney and President Obama.
Goode was not the only one to falsely present the two major candidates as indistinguishable from each other. Anderson’s campaign handed out a flyer listing his views and how they differ from Romney’s and Obama’s. Several of his examples were misleading. One box read, “signed or supports extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.” Romney supports making all of the Bush tax cuts permanent and Obama does not. It is true that in 2010 Obama signed a compromise  with Republicans that temporarily extended the Bush tax cuts in exchange for a bunch of temporary tax cuts, such as the payroll tax holiday, that are targeted at lower-income families and were intended to stimulate the economy. At the time, many liberals, such as Jonathan Chait argued  that Obama had brilliantly exploited the Republicans’ obsession with cutting taxes for the rich to get the better half of the deal. When I asked Anderson after the debate about whether this does not render his claim so carefully worded as to be dishonest, he gave me an incoherent answer about how Republicans were unwilling to raise the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling deal was separate and had nothing to do with this issue.
That, though, was not the norm for the evening’s discussion. And of course it pales next to, say, Romney’s serial dishonesty. Anderson and the other candidates were generally forthright and wonky on matters of policy. (The occasional exception was Johnson, who not only holds radical right-wing views on economic policy—in favor of block granting Medicare as well as Medicaid—but engages in Ron Paul–style fear-mongering about financial calamity that will ensue if we engage in loose monetary and fiscal policy. He invoked “people burning their furniture to stay warm.” If anything will cause that, it would be his cuts to the social safety net.)
But when it comes to their view of politics the candidates become far less clear-headed. Stein claimed that Nader’s voters were equally Republicans and Democrats so therefore he did not cost Gore the election. In fact, exit polls showed they were twice as likely to have voted for Gore than Bush had Nader not been on the ballot. (Even Nader does not dispute this.) When I asked Stein why she does not mimic the Tea Party’s success and try to bring the Democrats to the left as they have brought the Republicans rightward, she painted a somewhat false picture of the Tea Party movement. “The reason the Tea Party has been effective in moving the Republican Party to the right is the power of deep pockets pouring in. It’s just a smokescreen for the hijack of the system by big money.” I’ve covered the Tea Party, and Stein is wrong. Yes, it attracts donations from the Koch brothers and others. It also includes genuine grassroots activism. It opposes corporate handouts, and is fighting a war for ideological purity against crony capitalism in the GOP. If you think “big money,” wanted Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell to be the Republican Senate nominees in Nevada and Delaware, respectively, then you don’t understand politics at all.
And that is the problem with all of these candidates. They may bring attention to important issues such as protecting civil liberties and shrinking the defense budget. (All of them support withdrawing from Afghanistan, repealing the Patriot Act, renegotiating NAFTA, cutting the Pentagon budget and ending ethanol subsidies.) But they confuse the public, rather than enlightening it, on the American political system. Winner-take-all elections will always lead to two parties. When it doesn’t, you see the results of the United Kingdom and Canada, where multiple left of center parties split the vote and conservative parties that could never win an outright majority get to govern. Is that what Stein and Anderson want to happen here? It is certainly Nader’s legacy. After eight years of George W. Bush, they should know better.
John Nichols has a different take  on third-party candidates.
Correction: This article originally referred to California's Proposition 13 as Proposition 8.