Don't let the Bipolarchy fool you. Tonight's encounter between Senator McCain and Senator Obama is not the last presidential campaign debate for 2008. It may not even be the final debate appearance of either man if they have the guts to accept the invitation to Sunday's debate on C-SPAN, where they would have to stand alongside Chuck Baldwin, Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader, at least. Here's more information.
The Times article is inaccurate in describing the six people invited to the Sunday debate as "all six" candidates, but they are the only six who are on ballots in enough states to win the electoral vote. All things and all candidates being equal, Bob Barr's attitude is peculiar but consistent with his campaign so far. Unwilling to stand alongside Baldwin, McKinney and Nader at the Ron Paul press conference last month, the Libertarian nominee currently refuses to participate in the Sunday debate, preferring (he claims) a mano-a-mano with Nader. Barr clearly fancies himself on a higher plane than Baldwin and McKinney and on a level with Nader in national celebrity and poll numbers. But he shouldn't be so haughty. Baldwin at least has more standing and seniority within his party than Barr has, and McKinney is his outright peer as a former member of Congress. But Barr betrays a Bipolarchic mentality, attempting to establish himself and Nader as an exclusive second tier of candidates and pretty much recreating the "left-right" dichotomy on that tier, as Baldwin and McKinney probably could on a third tier. For all I know, Barr may envision a Tripolarchy, with the Libertarians joining the Democrats and Republicans, but that will never happen as long as the GOP can define itself as libertarian relative to the Dems and vice versa, depending on the issues under debate. Very few people, it seems, take a "libertarian" view on all issues. That fact assures the Libertarian Party of fringe status unless the Bipolarchy itself collapses. Odious as Baldwin's Constitution Party may be on many issues, and unrealistic as McKinney's Greens can be, I can see both eventually surpassing the Libertarians because neither is as completely ideological as Barr's party.
I don't expect miracles from the Sunday debate. I've come around to the view that debates involving more than two people are little better than game shows in which contestants compete to coin the best sound bites. A better option for future consideration would be a round-robin format pitting two candidates at a time against each other. In such an arrangement, McCain, for instance, might face Obama one week, Barr the next, Nader after that, and so on. This would knock candidates out of their comfort zones, since they would have to match wits (this is presuming a lot in some cases) against rivals to their left and their right. A round-robin debate series would be more of a test than if "all six" 2008 contenders appeared together, since the limited time available in the latter scenario would allow each to get away with stating their own views without really addressing challenges from multiple directions. Neither McCain nor Obama, nor Barr (apparently) would be comfortable with such a format because they have so much invested in the forced dichotomies of Bipolarchy discourse. Obama doesn't want to deal with someone to his left like McKinney or Nader any more than McCain cares to confront someone to his right like Baldwin. Worse, should voters grow accustomed to the idea that there are more than two sides to some questions, the either-or logic that upholds the American Bipolarchy might start to come apart. That would be reason to pressure the cable news networks to join C-SPAN in carrying the Sunday debate live, whoever shows up. As news providers, they owe it to the public.