POLITICS

Two DNC Vice-Chairs Push For Additional Primary Debates

Because of democracy and stuff.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) addresses the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Aug. 28, 2015, in
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) addresses the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Aug. 28, 2015, in Minneapolis.

The American political process is, as we all know, an interminable parade of shame and desperation. But the current election cycle has been made a little more bearable thanks to the (relatively) limited number of primary season debates. The Republican National Committee has kept that number somewhere within the realm of rational thought -- they'll have at most 12 debates, and perhaps as few as nine. Their counterparts at the Democratic National Committee have gone a similar route, scheduling six debates beginning in October. This is a substantial improvement over previous election seasons, in which it was common to have debates on a near-weekly basis.

Obviously, the decision not to murder the American people with constant debate-bludgeoning is a net benefit to society. But wherever there's a gathering of nonviable presidential candidates, there will also be a loud call for additional debates, since it's the core belief of every candidate polling at 1 percent that if they could just have a bunch of free media appearances -- say, five or 10 more debates, no big deal! -- they could execute their master plan and maybe end up polling at 5 percent. Or even 6!

So it's no big surprise that over on the Democratic side, where there is one viable candidate (Hillary Clinton) and one viable challenger (Bernie Sanders), we're seeing a demand from other folks in the field -- namely, those who are trying right now to outpoll perennial favorite "Margin of error" -- to have more debates, more opportunities, more, more, more. On Wednesday, a pair of Democratic National Committee vice-chairs, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, released a statement badgering DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz about this very issue. As Maggie Haberman reports for The New York Times:

The party committee’s “decision to limit Presidential candidates to 6 debates, with a threat of exclusion for any candidate who participates in any non-DNC sanctioned debate, is a mistake,” Ms. Gabbard and Mr. Rybak wrote in their statement.

 

“It limits the ability of the American people to benefit from a strong, transparent, vigorous debate between our Presidential candidates, as they make the important decision of who will be our Democratic Presidential nominee,” they wrote.

In an argument that "echoes a speech given at the party’s summer meeting in Minnesota by [former Maryland governor, Democratic primary also-ran and totally not the inspiration for anyone on 'The Wire' Martin] O’Malley," the two call for "several more debates than the six currently scheduled" and ask the DNC to relax the rules that currently ban Democratic candidates from the official debates if they participate in any non-sanctioned events.

But as The Hill's Jonathan Easley reported Thursday, Wasserman Schultz has declared the debate over debates to be over:

Speaking at a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Wasserman Schultz, who has been under fire by Democratic presidential candidates and some within the DNC, said the debate schedule was final and there would be no changes.

“We’re not changing the process. We’re having six debates,” she said. “The candidates will be uninvited from subsequent debates if they accept an invitation to anything outside of the six sanctioned debates.”

Sanders also called for more debates earlier this summer, saying, "At a time when many Americans are demoralized about politics and have given up on the political process, I think it’s imperative that we have as many debates as possible." But as Time's Sam Frizell reported in August, the Vermont senator "has rebuffed at least one TV outlet's efforts" to draw him into an unsanctioned debate. It's not hard to guess why Sanders would do this: It doesn't really benefit him to sit in a room with a handful of candidates who are barely scraping by in the polls. Per Frizell:

“It is not in Sanders’ self-interest to give up the possibility of debating Hillary Clinton,” said Kathleen Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “His advantage is to be in the same stage as her, demonstrating that he can hold his own. He is doing well enough in the polls that forgoing that would be foolish.”

Never let it be said that Sanders isn't capable of cold-blooded political calculus! 

We should note an irony: Back in 2008, when she was the candidate in desperate need of oxygen, Clinton was the one calling for more debates -- and running attack ads against then-Sen. Barack Obama for ducking them.

Sanders, Gabbard and Rybak notwithstanding, it would appear that the door has been shut on additional debates, leaving O'Malley alone with his complaints about the process and his accusations about the system being "rigged" in Clinton's favor. Which, to be fair, is a reasonable suspicion! As Jim Newell noted at Salon in May, "it’s not unfair to describe the Democratic National Committee as an informal adjunct of the Hillary Clinton campaign. She is the establishment front-runner -- the most establishment-y front-runner there has been in the modern era in either party, really -- and the Democratic National Committee is quite literally the Democratic Party establishment."

So no, it's probably not a coincidence that the current, limited debate schedule works out in Clinton's favor. Of course, she's been doing pretty well at the whole "win the support of influential party elites" thing, plus the "claim an overwhelming advantage with party donors" thing -- and maybe once you dominate those competitions, you don't really need Debbie Wasserman Schultz to help you further by arranging a debate schedule that gives your competitors few opportunities to shine. Perhaps that's why Clinton's campaign has "in recent days... suggested that she would be open to having more debates if that’s what the party committee decides to do," according to Haberman.

Then again, there's the distinct possibility that maybe O'Malley is just not great at the whole "being an appealing presidential candidate" thing. O'Malley's current poll average is 1.1 percent. He's never been within 40 points of Clinton, and the last time he was within single digits of Sanders was June 14. For a guy who's only doing slightly better at running for president than I am, how many extra debates is it going to take to fix this? 

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