From my vantage point, via YouTube on the morning after, the third-party presidential debate, held in a darkly-lit subterranean Chicago hotel ballroom and moderated by the pterosaur Larry King and a not-ready-for-primetime Christina Tobin of the Free and Equal Elections Foundation, gave off the vibe of an annual corporate sales meeting.

But there sure wasn’t a lot of love in the room for corporations. Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson, of the Green Party and Justice Party respectively, gave voice to the kind of anti-plutocrat rhetoric that leftists long to hear from the Clinton-Obama-era Democratic Party. Balancing Stein and Anderson’s unapologetic social justice rhetoric were Constitution Party contender Virgil Goode and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, the former two-term New Mexico governor.

I was at pains to figure out exactly why Goode isn’t a Republican. Jim Antle’s profile of the former Virginia congressman found Goode doggedly on the side of the mainstream GOP on big issues like the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, and the drug war. Republicans don’t talk much these days about Goode’s hobbyhorse — term limits — but the issue figured prominently in the 1994 Contract with America. His position on immigration — no green cards for foreign workers until employment is under five percent — is more restrictionist than the average GOPer’s, but his irrational fear of Muslims would fit right into Sarah Palin’s “real America” party.

Johnson, on the other hand, cut a truly “choice, not an echo” figure. He boasted of the 21 “liberty torches” he earned from the ACLU’s annual candidate report card. He fiercely advocated the noninterventionist position on Iran, prompting an unfortunate correction from Larry King: “I think both [Obama and Romney] said they would not bomb Iran.” Uh, no; they manifestly did not say that. Johnson was the only one of the four who actually sounded like he’s capable of performing on a national stage. His answers on drug prohibition and mass incarceration managed the trick of making idealism sound like commonsense. As with Ron Paul, his positions on monetary policy and federal spending were dealbreakers for me. Cutting more than $1 trillion in federal spending in a single fiscal year would hasten an economic crisis, not forestall one.

Each candidate was in agreement on one thing: repealing the codification of indefinite military detention without trial or charge, which President Obama signed into law in 2011. It really is a scandal that neither Obama nor Romney was asked about this in either of the two debates in which foreign policy was discussed. Yet I suspect this omission has little to do with corporate control of the bounds of political conversation, and more to do with popular apathy and ignorance. The Green Party’s Jill Stein argued that our country’s 90 million nonvoters are shouting “No!” to our plutocratic duopoly. That’s worth a chuckle. The 90 million aren’t paying attention, much less shouting.

The experience of the third-party debate led me to conclude that Ron Paul was wise: his constituency was far better served by his trying to reform the Republican party from within. At the end of this election cycle, who will have done more to advance the cause of the antiwar right? Paul or Johnson? It’s a question that answers itself.

One more point: rather than propping up no-chance presidential parties, third parties generally would be better off fighting at the grassroots level for proportional representation in Congress, which would not require an amendment to the Constitution. (Interestingly, one avenue for getting there — “top-two” open primaries — was rejected by all four of the third-party candidates last night.) With no hope of organizational support in either house of Congress, national third-party candidacies will remain a quixotic joke.

Gary Johnson closed with the powerful assertion that voting for someone you don’t believe in is the real “wasted vote.” Speaking only for myself, I’m not looking for anyone to “believe in.” What I’d like to see is the increasingly ossified clusters of fiscal and social issues broken up and reconfigured in a variety of regionally distinctive ways. Third party-ites are right that certain issues, like climate change and the often cruel fate of nonviolent drug offenders, are ignored. But the bigger problem is that the issues that are debated are held hostage by national ideological enforcers like Grover Norquist and NARAL. I’d like to see more pro-life economic populists in Congress. Both parties used to be able to accommodate such animals. No longer. Maybe another party or two or three is necessary. But that’s incidental to the real culprit: namely the huffing and puffing of national “wave elections” that spend tens of millions of dollars to settle nothing.