Iowa Democrats may be getting a real caucus competition with four or five candidates soon all in the race, but they’ll only see the White House hopefuls together on stage once in the state. That’s according to the primary debate schedule plan the Democratic National Committee unveiled Tuesday. The DNC is setting up six “sanctioned” debates for the candidates to participate in. If a candidate or media outlet participates in a non-sanctioned debate, they’ll be excluded from the official ones.
This is a considerable departure from previous cycles. During the 2008 presidential primary, Democrats participated in a whopping 26 debates. That was probably too many. Candidates should have time to travel and meet the voters, rather than spend most of their time holed up in a hotel doing debate prep for weekly debates. Still, to go from 26 to a mere 6 is jarring, to say the least.
Both the DNC and RNC are attempting to take more control over the process this year. Republicans are set to have 12 debates, though that’s probably low too considering they could have 20 people on stage (won’t that be fun to watch!). The DNC plans to begin their debates in the Fall, with the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina each getting to host one. The other two are yet to be scheduled.
And to be fair, this presidential cycle is already much different from 2008. The first debate back then was on April 27, 2007 and featured eight Democrats, including that lunatic Mike Gravel. It’s May and we only have two official candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The 2008 race also extended all the way into June as Clinton and Obama duked it out in the later states. If Clinton continues to dominate the polls as she does now, the 2016 primary could be done by March. So it’s obviously understandable to have fewer debates with a shorter time frame. But only six? That’s ridiculous.
Clinton agreed to participate, however Martin O’Malley’s camp was quick to voice their frustration. “If Governor O’Malley decides to run, we will expect a full, robust, and inclusive set of debates — both nationally and in early primary and caucus states,” O’Malley spokesperson Lis Smith said. “This has been customary in previous primary seasons. In a year as critical as 2016, exclusivity does no one any favors.”
The light debate schedule presents a serious question as to whether the DNC is a truly independent arbitrator in this matter, or if DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is rigging the game to help Clinton. Nationally-televised debates are sometimes the only chance underdog candidates get to present themselves to a national audience. Starting in the fall seems designed to compact this process as much as possible and keep Clinton’s challengers from having a chance to break out. When and where will they schedule the other two debates? If one candidate consolidates the not-Hillary vote after early state upsets, will he even have a chance to go one-on-one with her in a March debate?
It’s also notable that the debates were often one of Clinton’s strengths in 2008, aside from the terrible October one where her wavering answer on immigrant driver licenses kicked-off her campaign tailspin. But Clinton was actually the only one of the 2008 candidates who attended every debate. If she could get through 26 of them then, certainly she can do more than 6 now.
So few debates also lessens the amount of topics discussed. And considering the amount of constituencies the Democrats represent, that could really anger certain groups. There’s usually a mix of formats, some just asking topics-of-the-day, while others are specifically focused on the economy, foreign policy or issues like immigration. Will we have many issue-specific ones? Iowa’s famous Black and Brown Forum will almost certainly be on the chopping block. Will the DNC tailor the formats to Clinton’s strengths? Will they hold a trade-centered one that could allow Sanders and O’Malley to hit Clinton on the TPP? Will there be an urban-focused one where O’Malley could relate his successes with Baltimore?
Overall, the DNC’s plan for six debates is downright awful. Iowans and other early states will be miffed they only get one debate. Discussion on important topics will get reduced to one or two questions, rather than being fully explored in issue-specific formats. And while it may give the slight appearance of competition with Clinton on stage with other Democrats, it greatly undercuts the chance for anyone else to build a national profile and really challenge the front-runner.
(Random thought: If any Democrats want more debates outside the DNC ones, why not challenge one of the Republican candidates? Many would probably appreciate a chance to speak on a stage with just one other person, instead of 20 (and excite their supporters by telling off a Democrat to their face). How much fun would it be to watch Bernie Sanders debate Bobby Jindal? For O’Malley to fight over executive leadership with Carly Fiorina? Or Jim Webb to discuss foreign policy and the Iraq War with Rick Santorum? Just an idea…)
by Pat Rynard