It was an exercise in endurance slogging through the three-hour GOP debate last night, but no one could possibly look away. The Republican debates this year have quickly become must-watch TV, drawing in record audiences. The viewership from last night is estimated at 22.9 million, “NFL-level ratings” as they’re calling it, CNN’s most-watched program ever.
It’s not hard to see why. Besides the crazy entertainment factor Donald Trump has brought to the race, the first debate had a huge impact on several candidates’ rises and falls. This one was no different. Carly Fiorina’s star rose ever higher with a commanding performance, likely to bring along a jump in the polls too. This may have marked the beginning of the end for Trump, beset by attacks on all sides, yet this time he seemed overwhelmed and tired. And it continued the potential end of Scott Walker, who did his best to butt in whenever things got too exciting in order to bore the crowd to tears.
But the most important takeaway from the night is this: nearly 23 million people tuned in to hear 11 Republicans lay out a very conservative vision for the country. And it will be another month until they’re able to hear the same from Democrats.
Sure, some watched for the amusement factor, and it did highlight some of the candidates’ more extreme ideas. But it also presented Republicans with a chance to sway some voters and, crucially, excite their base. Plus it’s giving some of their more likely eventual nominees, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, additional practice for the general election debates. Bush in particular was considerably improved over his prior outing, and if he can learn how to deal with the unpredictability of someone like Trump, imagine how he’d do up against Clinton.
And yet Debbie Wasserman-Schultz continues to hold steadfast to her insane and counter-productive plan for Democrats to have only six debates, the first one not until October 13th. She has argued that six are plenty, that it brings order to the wild amount of debates in 2008, and that it’ll be plenty of time to let Democrats express their views. Of course, that’s all a load of crap, and the only real reason she’s implemented this process is she thinks it benefits her preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, from facing too much competition in the primary.
How wrong she is.
First, Hillary Clinton does not need to be shielded from debates. It was one of the strongest aspects of her campaign in 2008, save for the one bad response on an immigrant drivers license question. And even then, it’s always helpful for your candidates to get more practice in intra-mural affairs before the general election.
Second, Clinton badly, badly needs to change the conversation right now. Coverage of her email server issue has overshadowed everything else she’s done the past several months, devastating her polling numbers. A debate watched by millions would allow her to address the issue head on, rather than have it distorted through biased media sources, and would let her actually discuss the policy issues her campaign has been trying to bring to the forefront.
Third, forget about Clinton for a moment. How about it’s just fair to allow real debate and competition in the party? Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb deserve a chance to have their message heard, which isn’t happening in this crazy 2016 media coverage that only talks about Trump (and again, neither has Clinton).
Fourth, it would give Democrats an opportunity to present their party’s ideas to the nation in a thoughtful, unfiltered manner. Even though the moderators will egg them on, it seems highly unlikely the Democratic debates will turn into the nasty free-for-alls the Republicans have experienced. The Democrats have focused considerably more on in-depth policy proposals on the campaign trail, and Sanders has refused to criticize Clinton, aside from a few small tweaks. That would be a compelling contrast for voters to see. And in 2008 there were so many debates on both sides that the Democrats often got to slam what the Republicans had said just a few days earlier.
And it’s that last one in particular, and also how it would actually help Clinton, that makes this all so disturbing. Wasserman-Schultz, the official chair of the Democratic Party, appears to have absolutely zero political sensibilities or strategic thoughts. More debates help everyone. How on earth the person nominally in charge of guiding the party’s efforts can’t see that is unbelievable.
What’s worse is that she seems to be employing the same type of idiotic strategies that Democrats tried in 2010 and 2014. Rather than more actively promote the party’s message and values, they looked at polls that showed Republicans’ stances doing poorly, so they focused most of their efforts on attacking the other side, failing to give the base a reason to vote for candidates. Wasserman-Schultz has repeatedly told media outlets that she’s glad there’s so many Republican debates to highlight where their party is wrong. But that’s the kind of misguided communications plan that fails to realize that sometimes Republicans are making convincing arguments, and that the Democrats need to present their vision as well.
One other long-term problem here lies in the party’s ability to come together after the primary. The arrogance in which Wasserman-Schultz has shut down all discussion over the debates – even when several DNC Vice-Chairs spoke up in support of adding more – could and should turn off supporters of Sanders to the Democratic Party. If his backers think the game is rigged – and right now it is – many of them may stay home in the general if Clinton’s the nominee.
Seriously, why any Democrat should donate money to the DNC right now is questionable. The DNC’s unprecedented debate restriction is unacceptable and damaging Democrats’ chances of retaining the White House. And the mindset behind it all makes one wonder if their leadership is really up to the task for 2016.
by Pat Rynard
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