POLITICS

Martin O'Malley Wins The Debate Over The Democratic Debates

As America tuned in for the primary clashes, the Democrats quit the stage.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will face off at the Duggal Greenhouse in Brooklyn, New York, for their latest debate on Thursday night. The head-to-head between the two was a contentious enough affair just to set up: Sanders, who is not winning the delegate battle, wanted a debate ahead of the New York primary badly. The Clinton camp, not so much. But they bungled the debate over the debate after Clinton strategist Joel Benenson suggested that the independent Vermont senator needed to change his "tone" to deserve another chance to debate.

That outburst landed like a lead balloon, and so here we are. 

The Democratic Party has reserved the right to stage one last debate in May, but there's nevertheless a pretty good chance that this week's session-behind-the-lecterns will be the final outing of the liberal debate season. So it's a fitting time to reflect upon the most important thing we learned through the Democrats' series of debates. That thing? Former Maryland governor and 2016 also-ran Martin O'Malley is right when he says the whole process was a steaming crock of manure.

In fact, O'Malley, who recently spoke on the matter for The Huffington Post's "Candidate Confessional" podcast, believes that more than anything else, the Democratic Party consigned themselves to second-rate status by staging the debates in such a way that guaranteed nobody would watch.

I think it was a great disservice to the republic, actually, that we let that immigrant bashing, carnival barker, fascist demagogue, Donald Trump have full run of the airwaves. And he grew into a phenomenon over those summer months while we heard nothing from the Democratic Party. And even when we did start debating, we didn't debate in prime time. We debated in a cynical way on Saturday nights or Sunday nights or opposite Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman the week before Christmas. 

And the early Democratic debates were an astonishing contrast to what was happening on the dais at the GOP's affairs. While the Republican candidates were coming to terms with the psychotic, insult-laden fugue state that Trump brought with him to these prime time events, the Democrats were debating policy ideas and party philosophy in collegial fashion.

Any side-by-side comparison might have revealed to viewers that there was one party capable of having high-level discussions and substantive argument. There was never a time on the Democrats' debate stages that someone's appearance was insulted, or genitals hefted for girth. Sanders and Clinton were eager to demonstrate their differences, and heatedly spar, but no one's American-ness was impugned. No one complained on Twitter about their fights with the moderators. There was a general sense that there was one political party of adults, and one that was an insane, schoolboy row-worthy of a William Golding book.

The problem, of course, is that the way the Democrats constructed their own debate schedule made that side-by-side comparison quite one-sided. The Democratic Party's debate season was designed to be easy to avoid, and it was magnificently successful. As Byron Tau reported in February, the GOP has been winning the ratings war in a rout: 

According to an analysis of data from the television analytics firm Nielsen, the Democratic debates have drawn on average about 9.2 million viewers, while the Republican debates have brought in roughly 16.2 million per forum.

That set the stage for the only Democratic debate of the season that was at all noteworthy -- the debate in Flint, Michigan. This was the event that was supposed to demonstrate that the Democratic Party was the party willing to shine a light on one of the year's most pressing concerns -- the Flint lead water crisis -- and demonstrate that they had the finger on the pulse of the concerns of real people, and that they were willing to share the spotlight with citizens who had lost faith in their government.

The Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders face-off was the second lowest result for any debate so far this season.

The debate faced stiff prime time competition plus a political reality: The Republican race is much more interesting to viewers right now.

Having a debate in Flint, Michigan, and sharing the stage with actual residents of the contaminated-water plagued city, is precisely the sort of opportunity the Democrats could have used to highlight contrasts with the in-fighting Republicans. But when you put no effort behind ensuring that people watch your debates -- when you train viewers to view them as missable events -- it's an opportunity lost.

O'Malley puts the blame precisely where it belongs -- on Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. "It was a unilateral decision by the chair and only the chair," he said. "And when people started to ask questions in that meeting about who made the decision, they were ruled out of order, and sit down, and it's time for the benediction and there was no discussion of it."

Of course, there was some discussion in the form of an intra-party insurrection that ended up blowing out into the news as debate season began. Wasserman-Schultz was accused of engineering a debate process specifically designed to benefit Clinton. Wasserman-Schultz made several inane attempts to sting back. Politifact examined her insistence that the debate schedule was designed to "maximize" the potential audience, and found the claim to be "dubious." 

And on Twitter, Wasserman-Schultz demonstrated that she wasn't living in the same reality as the rest of us. As Politico's Hadas Gold reported:

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz tried to mock Republicans on Saturday for holding a debate on SuperBowl weekend only to see her own weekend-stacked debate schedule thrown back in her face.

"Hmmm, wondering why @GOP trying to hide their #GOPdebate on the Saturday of #SuperBowl weekend no less?!" Wasserman Schultz tweeted before the GOP forum on ABC.

"They're taking a page from your playbook?" tweeted Lis Smith, who was deputy campaign manager to Martin O'Malley.

"Is she trolling herself?" asked "The Daily Show" Digital Production Manager Anthony De Rosa.

O'Malley's motives aren't entirely selfless -- he also attributes the Democratic Party's decisions on debates as being uniquely harmful to his outsider bid: "One of my trusted advisors said, 'On that day, when they came out with the schedule and said there would be only four debates, and that most of them were going to be on Saturday and Sunday nights, hidden by NFL playoff games and the like, that's when I knew our goose was cooked."

But his point about offering some sort of counter-programming to Trump is still valid, because while the businessman's rise was enabled more by the other GOP candidates' failure to deal with him, it surely didn't help that the Democratic Party essentially quit the stage at the very moment he emerged as a threat. It made them look timid and out-of-touch with the moment. More importantly, it enforced the idea that the Democratic primary process was a second-class affair.

Ultimately, however, the Democrats' ridiculous debate season has less to do with enabling Trump's rise or blunting O'Malley's ambitions. At a moment when Americans were tuning in to find out how the future might shape up, and who would arrive to assuage their fears and offer them hope, the Democrats were the absent party. As O'Malley puts it, "At a critical time, our party remained silent."

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Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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