Few politicians have less claim to the protections of democratic principle than Ross Perot, who has done everything in his power to quash dissent within the fiefdom he calls the Reform Party. And we doubt Perot's challenge to his exclusion from the presidential debates has much basis in law, as opposed to politics.

But Perot is not the point. Thirty years ago, the exclusion might have made sense. From 1928 to 1964, third party or independent candidates had little or no effect on the outcome of presidential elections. Since then, however, such bids have routinely influenced the way presidents are selected. In three of the last seven elections (1968,1980 and 1992), third party and independent candidates compelled Democratic and Republican nominees to discuss issues they would rather have avoided--from busing and racial segregation to foreign trade and K Street lobbying to entitlements and the budget deficit. By recommending Perot's exclusion this year, the Commission on Presidential Debates is stifling discussion and suppressing a political evolution that will strengthen American democracy.

Though the commission merely offers recommendations to the candidates, its suggestions have generally been followed in recent years because of its reputation for impartiality. As its decision on Perot reveals, that reputation is entirely undeserved. Democrats and Republicans set up the commission in 1987 to wrest the debates from the non-partisan League of Women Voters. In its first press conference, Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk Jr. and Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf declared their intention to exclude third parties. In 1992, they were forced by public opinion to allow Perot to debate, but last fall, one month after Perot announced the Reform Party's formation, Kirk and Fahrenkopf announced new criteria that virtually preordained the exclusion of Perot, or any other conceivable challenger to the two party system.

According to the commission, a candidate must have a "realistic chance" of being elected. To have a realistic chance, he or she not only needs the money, organization and ballot access to contend, but must also be within striking distance of the front-runner in public opinion polls and pundit surveys (one of the stranger aspects of the commission's deliberation is the way it has consecrated polls and punditry as an official part of the democratic process). On the first test, Kirk and Fahrenkopf gave Perot a partial fail (they criticized him for limiting himself to $30 million in federal matching funds!), but the decisive criteria was the second: a month and a half before November, barely anyone thinks he can win.

That definition would have ruled out every third party or independent challenge this century except for Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. If applied to Democratic and Republican candidates, it would have knocked out Taft in 1912, Smith in 1928, Dewey in 1944, Stevenson in 1956, Goldwater in 1964, McGovern in 1972 and Mondale in 1984. At the equivalent point in their campaigns, it might also have precluded Truman in 1948 and Ford in 1976. For that matter, it could rule out Dole in 1996.

There is a better standard. A candidate should have the money, organization and ballot access necessary to run a national campaign. And he or she should be in a position to influence the final result--whether by winning outright or by tipping the balance in several states or in a region. By these criteria, George Wallace would have qualified in 1968; so would Anderson in 1980 and Perot in 1992 (when he delivered to Clinton several Western states Clinton couldn't have won on his own) and 1996. Barry Commoner and the Citizen Party would not have qualified in 1980, and Ralph Nader and Libertarian candidate Harry Browne would not make it in 1996.

Perot's exclusion this year could, of course, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he can't participate in the debates, Perot may not win enough votes to affect the outcome in any state. And that will in turn become evidence against allowing independents and third party candidates to participate next time. But the spectacle of Democratic and Republican bosses conspiring to ensure their parties' hegemony will only fuel the alienation and paranoia that reveals itself in support for people like Ross Perot. At a time when their hold on public loyalty seems to be declining ever further, it is a grave mistake to confuse accountability to the two established parties with accountability to the electorate. The legitimacy of the Commission on Presidential Debates is based entirely on this fiction. It should be abolished.

By The Editors