WASHINGTON, D.C. — If Monday night’s presidential debate will be best known for "horses and bayonets," then Tuesday’s debate will without a doubt be remembered for the words of indomitable media icon and the night’s moderator, Larry King: "We’re on drugs."
King, 78, had come out of semi-retirement to moderate the first of two debates featuring third-party candidates for the presidency. During a discussion of drug policy, Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode quickly veered off into areas of the federal budget like Planned Parenthood that he said he would zero out if president.
The wide-ranging answer drew a quick rebuke from King. "We’re on drugs. We’re on drugs," he reminded Goode, before moving on to Libertarian candidate former Gov. Gary Johnson.
"Gov. Johnson on drugs," King said without a hint of irony.
The debate, which King pointed out took place in a downtown Chicago Hilton ballroom and featured Johnson, Goode, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and the Justice Party’s Rocky Anderson, didn’t get off to an auspicious start.
King’s microphone didn’t work when the veteran broadcaster first sought to begin the night’s proceedings. Later, King launched directly into the questions — which were submitted via Twitter and other social networks. But after the candidates had answered the first question on state election laws, Stein pointed out that King had not first had the candidates give opening statements.
Following a brief back and forth, the candidates proceeded to give their opening statements, albeit secondly.
Unlike the previous debates between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the discussion traversed the policy map, touching on education, the environment, the war on drugs, military spending and the expansion of the government’s surveillance abilities over the past several years.
On a number of topics, most of the candidates agreed. For instance, all four called for an end to the National Defense Authorization Act and its surveillance provisions. All four likewise bemoaned the cost of the war on drugs.
"We have more people in prisons and jails on drug offenses than Western Europe has it its prison and jails on all offenses," Anderson noted at one point.
In other areas, they took starkly different approaches, particularly on the federal government’s role in helping citizens go to college.
"I think its time to make public higher education free, as it should be," Stein said at one point, pointing to the G.I. Bill as a model.
Anderson agreed, arguing for "free and equal educational opportunity in colleges and technical schools … this is not a radical idea. It's done in many parts of the world, and it pays off huge dividends."
But the two conservatives were unmoved by that argument. "We can’t afford more subsidized [loans] and we can’t afford more Pell grants …. [W]e’ve got to balance the budget and decline the debt," Goode said.
"Free comes with a cost. Free, very simply, is spending more money than you take in. Free is simply accumulating more to [the debt]," Johnson agreed.
But even when they disagreed, the four candidates never crossed into the sort of personal attacks and quibbling back and forth that marked the Obama-Romney face-offs.
Indeed, Johnson was the only one to even attempt a quip when he described Romney and Obama as "Tweedledee and Tweedledum" and argued that "candidates should be required to wear NASCAR type patches on jackets," identifying their campaign contributors.
None of the candidates has any realistic chance of making it to the Oval Office, and its unclear if any will even rise to the level of spoiler like Ralph Nader did in 2000.
Still, for many following the debate, the focus on specific policy issues was a refreshing change from the rehearsed, largely staged affairs of the last several weeks.
For instance, on Twitter scores of viewers lauded the debate's focus on issues and the lack of acrimony and personal attacks.
"Love that the candidates don't argue at all. They want to be heard based on their plan to save the country, and that's it," Top The News tweeted during the debate. Pepper Snyder mused that "I can never watch another orchestrated boring 2 party system debate after hearing this FANTASTIC #3rdPartyDebate."
And the simple fact that the four contenders had decided to run at all was enough to get respect from the moderator.
"It’s easy to sit there. These people stood up. They may not be counted on November 6th, but they’ll be counted today," King said.