Guest op-ed by Polk County Democrats Chair Sean Bagniewski
The Democratic National Committee’s road to the debate stage was paved with good intentions.
Throughout 2018, a record number of up-and-coming Democratic presidential candidates crisscrossed the country and early voting states to boost down-ballot candidates from would-be legislators to first-time congressional nominees. In November 2018, that unprecedented interest and enthusiasm delivered massive Democratic victories across the United States. As 2019 began, it became clear that many, if not all, of those potential 2020 candidates would indeed run for the White House.
The party was giddy that almost every star was going to run – it was like the Infinity War of Democratic politics. On the other hand, party leaders dreaded the prospect of too many candidates. Some worried about a protracted nomination process and a brokered convention. Others worried that the divisiveness of 2016 would rear its ugly head, but now with even more people. Still more worried that we needed to get behind a single candidate right away if we wanted to defeat Donald Trump.
The DNC solution was to impose stringent requirements on those who could be on the Democratic debate stages that centered on two of the most misleading factors in American politics: opinion polls and money. Again, this really was well-intentioned.
The first hurdle for the 2020 candidates very quickly became a game of how to get people to say your name for an opinion poll. You can run really, really far to the left. Some candidates have. You can run really, really far to the center. Some candidates have. Or you can run to the bottom in search of viral moments.
And, lord knows, 2019 has had its share of cringeworthy attempts at clickbait. Many voters can tell you the names of any candidate’s dogs (I love dogs). Anyone can easily pull up endless candidate odes to breakfast pizza (I love breakfast pizza too). Everything must be relatable.
In 2019, the silliness is often the rule. Part of it is keeping up with the Donald Trump reality show. Part of it is the rise of social media. But part of it is the desperate need to be ever-present in someone’s mind in case a polling company calls.
The second hurdle then became how to get people to donate money to you. You can generate constant attempts at clickbait and beg for a couple bucks while you do it. We’ve seen that a lot. Or you can be a millionaire and billionaire (we have many) with the personal resources to purchase millions of dollars of advertising across all platforms. Very wealthy folks are paying very many dollars just to get one person to give just a few dollars and help them with the DNC fundraising score.
All the lesser-funded candidates have had to resort to drastic measures to boost their donor numbers. Senator Cory Booker announced in September that he would have to exit the race unless he received a bunch of donations. Senator Michael Bennet was offering signed copies of his books for just a couple bucks to help his fundraising numbers this summer. Every campaign seemed to have a contest begging people to donate just $1 for a chance to meet the candidate and take a shot of whiskey, have brunch, take a selfie, or do something else.
These skewed incentives have canceled some of the brightest candidates we had. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had a plan to start low, meet a bunch of people, and then peak toward the end of this year right before the Iowa Caucuses in February 2020. That didn’t mesh with the increasingly strict DNC debate rules.
Governor Steve Bullock had the gall to wait to announce his presidential run until the Montana legislature completed its session this spring. That “late” start to do what public servants are supposed to do, namely govern, was no excuse for the debate rules.
I was overjoyed to live in a country where someone like Senator Kamala Harris could run for president. I’m equally dismayed that her campaign fell apart, in part, because of the perverse incentives in this race. Saturday Night Live made a running joke about her dreams of viral moments. They were funny then and really sad now in retrospect.
The party leaders who criticize a state like Iowa having the first caucuses are the same ones who created rules that will have a December debate stage that, as of now, is completely white. One can only wonder how then-Senator Barack Obama (whose first big win was in Iowa) would fare in his crowded race with these kind of rules.
So, what can we do about it?
First, let’s demand better from the field. If you get to ask a candidate a question or meet them in person, push them on the issues. Push their campaigns on the issues, too. Look at their histories. Right now, having barely any record for a candidate is being rewarded. A candidate’s record of legislative accomplishments or civic services used to be an indicator on how they’d fare as a leader.
Now, those records are being used as a weapon. The more paper trail, the more there is to attack. The Twitterverse proclaimed Kamala Harris a cop, Cory Booker a pharma bro, Joe Biden a segregationist. Our own voters are, once again, doing the Republican’s work for them. Please avoid the cheap bait out there and think before you share something sensational.
If one of our remaining candidates has the right stance and the right history for you, give them your time. Doorknock, phonebank, and volunteer your heart out. Grassroots energy is contagious and matters even more than a couple clips from the debate stage. Trump’s daily reality show has been great for cable ratings, but has been terrible for the country. 2018 seems like a decade ago, but across the country we saw that persistent, purposeful work beat the Republican clown car in race after race (Scott Walker, Dana Rohrabacher, the list continues). We have to do it all one more time next year and the current debate structure isn’t helping it.
We often say that the Founders couldn’t imagine a wannabe dictator like Donald Trump. Even despite their hatred of parties and factions, the Founders couldn’t have imagined that we’d be picking our presidents based on a candidate’s ability to beg for a dollar while they spell the name of their favorite ice cream backwards on Instagram.
There’s still a limited window to stop the well-intentioned madness. The DNC should either eliminate or relax their rules for the future debates. It will be wildly unfair to those who have already dropped out, but it would be even worse for us to lose more of some truly amazing candidates.
In the end, it’s not just the candidates and the party who will suffer. Our whole form of government is at stake here.
So, whether you’re fighting for the kids in cages on the border or the century farmer who isn’t able to buy her kids toys this Christmas, or anyone else that we so desperately care about, let’s hope that our party gets as serious as the times require. Even if we win in November and get to the hard work of putting our country back together, there will be very little to laugh about for a very long time.
Let’s stop silly season while we still can.
by Sean Bagniewski