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The State of Reform
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Download Unite America's free report analyzing the impact of four key political reforms.
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The last independent invited to participate in a presidential debate was Ross Perot -- 28 years ago.

Appeals court rejects bid to get more outsiders into presidential debates

A long, and long-shot, quest to get more candidates onto the presidential debate stage has run aground in a federal appeals court.

The Libertarian and Green parties, and the nonprofit advocacy group Level the Playing Field, have been challenging the debate qualifications for six years, arguing they unfairly if not unconstitutionally favored the nominees of the two major parties. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals flatly and unanimously rejected all those arguments last week.

Many groups who view the political system as broken place much of the blame on the Republican and Democratic duopoly, which they say will never be weakened unless candidates with other allegiances have a shot at victory. And a prerequisite for getting a serious look for president, they argue, is getting your personality and policies known to the sort of national TV audience only debates command.

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The Las Vegas debate will be Mike Bloomberg's first, giving him the opportunity to reveal his position on democracy reform.

Debate gives Bloomberg airtime to detail (and defend) his democracy reform ideas

Mike Bloomberg's debate debut offers him an opportunity to explain where he stands on most of the main agenda items in the democracy reform movement, a topic on which he's revealed little so far.

And if he doesn't volunteer his views, starting with his attitude as a self-funding billionaire candidate toward regulating the campaign giving and spending by others, his presidential rivals will have every incentive to press him hard Wednesday night.

Of the 17 most prominent proposals for improving the way democracy works — not only on campaign finance but also on access to the ballot box, election security, political ethics and revamping our governing systems — Bloomberg has staked out a clear position on just 10.

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Democratic presidential candidates debate in the run-up to the New Hampshire primary. They each have staked out positions on democracy reform issues.

Democracy reform’s welcome arrival as a Democratic cause

Schmitt is director of the political reform program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank.

A presidential campaign is a contest of ideas, not just personalities. As candidates set out policy priorities and develop proposals, we learn more about what they care about, but we also see in their reflection what voters and party activists want to hear. The proposals that even the failed candidates embrace, and the priority they give them, can foreshadow ideas that will take hold in the future.

New America looked into how the major candidates for president have been talking about reform of democracy. We took an inventory of the ideas emerging in this high-intensity laboratory. What we found validated our colleague Lee Drutman's recent observation that "from the long arc of American political history, I see the bright flashing arrows of a new age of reform and renewal ahead."

Not since 1976, after Watergate and an earlier impeachment, has the vision of reforming democracy itself been as central to a presidential contest as it is now.

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While curbing the influence of money in politics has been on the agenda in previous campaigns — it was central to 2008 Republican nominee John McCain's career, and Barack Obama emphasized restrictions on lobbying — the range of different democracy reform issues on the agenda this year is unprecedented. In the decade since the Citizens United v. FEC and Shelby County v. Holder decisions, citizens have been mobilized by concerns about voting rights, corruption and the relationship between economic and political power.

President Trump has embraced some limits on the "revolving door" between lobbying and government, but he has appointed more lobbyists to key positions in three years than his two predecessors did in eight. Otherwise, Trump has not endorsed any elements of a political reform agenda, and promotes removing voters from the rolls.

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"We desperately need to inject new ideas, new voices, new formats and new approaches into our lifeless debate process," argues Eli Beckerman.

The country deserves presidential debates, not more reality TV

Beckerman is the founder of Open the Debates, a cross-partisan group that advocates allowing more third-party and independent candidates to participate in campaign debates.

In 1858, the country was divided. Abraham Lincoln opened his campaign for the Senate in Illinois with a powerful and controversial speech quoting Jesus: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." He added, "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."

Incumbent Democrat Stephen Douglas engaged Lincoln in a defining series of seven debates focused on the issue of slavery and its expansion to the western territories. The debates jolted the nation, drawing crowds of tens of thousands and widespread national coverage. While Douglas won the Senate race, the debates catapulted Lincoln to the Republican nomination for president in 1860 — and the pivotal role in saving the nation.

As we seek to exit another dark period of disunity without fraying the "bonds of affection" and "mystic chords of memory" that Lincoln believed unite us, we would be wise to look to the nature of our political discourse and the political debates that shape it.

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