If you tuned in to the recent Republican and Democratic presidential debates, you may have had the same reaction as many viewers looking at the crowded stages: Who's that? The Democratic debate in South Carolina featured eight candidates, while 10 crammed into the GOP debate in California last Thursday. Voters trying to sort out their presidential choices aren't helped by debates cluttered with the likes of Mike Gravel (hint: he's a former senator from Alaska) on the Democratic side and Ron Paul (hint: he's a libertarian House member from Texas) among the Republicans. If the standard is that any declared candidate is entitled to a podium, we're going to end up with even more crowded stages in 2012.
Now, there were plenty of candidates on those stages who really were clutter: They don't have a chance to win and their messages are indistinguishable from the people who do have a shot. But it's telling that the Post didn't single out, say, Chris Dodd or Jim Gilmore. It singled out the two most anti-war and anti-establishment figures in the race, two men who clearly are alternatives to the frontrunners. Unlike the clutter candidates, Gravel and Paul said things at the debates that actually generated some buzz afterwards, on talk radio and online if not in the Post or with the Sunday-morning dinosaurs. I don't know if they won any votes, but they did more than anyone else to add ideas to the conversation.
Yes, I'm biased: I'm a Paul supporter, and while Gravel gives off a dotty-old-man vibe I think his anti-war, anti-IRS platform is preferable to any other Democrat's program. But I'm also glad to see small-scale candidates I don't agree with onstage, whether it's Tom Tancredo and his border-control campaign or Dennis Kucinich and his plans to regulate everything up to and including the sky. It's people like that who introduce actual debate to the debates. That concept might be foreign to the Post, which seems eager to whittle the political spectrum to a manageable centimeter, but for some of us it's the only thing that might make the race interesting.