What happened in Vegas should not stay in Vegas.
The reviews are in from the first debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, and they’re positive.
Viewership topped 15 million, a record for debating Democrats.
As Martin O’Malley noted, this was a debate that actually presented an appealing message (or set of messages) to the American people–as opposed to the highly viewed but not highly evolved Republican debates. “On this stage, you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women, you didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants, you didn’t hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious belief,” said the former governor of Maryland, whose earnest campaign gained deserved exposure Tuesday night. “What you heard instead on this stage tonight was an honest search for the answers that will move our country forward, to move us to a 100 percent clean electric energy grid by 2050, to take the actions that we have always taken as Americans so that we can actually attack injustice in our country, employ more of our people, rebuild our cities and towns, educate our children at higher and better levels, and include more of our people in the economic, social, and political life of our country.”
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the front-runner in the race, got a boost, as did her chief challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who illustrated a little of what he means when he talks about forging “a political revolution” by eschewing attacks and steering the discussion back again and again toward vital economic and social issues. The takeaway line of the night was the senator’s assertion that “Americans are sick and tired of hearing about [Clinton’s] damn e-mails,” but the more important part of that statement was his reminder to myopic media that “I go around the country, talk to a whole lot of people. The middle class in this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. The American people want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens Union. Enough of the e-mails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”
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And so the contenders did, to the benefit of their respective candidacies and their party.
So why not schedule more debates?
Why not schedule a whole bunch of additional debates?
That was the point Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaiian Democrat who serves as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, made on the eve of Tuesday night’s debate. Gabbard, a genuine rising star within the party, went very public with her argument that the DNC needs to add debates to a schedule that is too limited, too restricted, too slow to get going. “More and more people on the ground from states all across the country are calling for more debates, are wanting to have this transparency and greater engagement in our democratic process at a critical time, as they make the decision of who should be the next person to lead our country,” said Gabbard, who with another DNC vice chair, former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybek, has taken up the call of O’Malley and Sanders for more debates.
Gabbard’s message was not well received by DNC disciplinarians. According to the congresswoman, her staff was notified by an aide to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz that she was “no longer welcome to come to the debate.”
“The prevailing message of that was that because I continued to call for more debates, that I should not go to the debate in Las Vegas,” the congresswoman said. “The issue here is not about me saying, ‘Boo hoo, I’m going to miss the party.’ The issue here is one of democracy and freedom of speech.”
Gabbard stepped up, doing interviews and holding her ground even as DNC spokespeople scrambled to signal that “we embrace the diversity of opinions.”
The DNC defenses were rejected by Rybak, who pointedly declared, “This is not a back-and-forth between a chair and a vice chair,” he said. “This is a chair of the Democratic Party wrongly stating that she consulted with all of the party officers. I was not consulted. I know that Tulsi Gabbard was not consulted. And this is becoming about much more than debates.”
A frustrated Rybak acknowledged that “I am seriously questioning whether [Wasserman Schultz] has the capacity to do what has to be done,” while renewing calls for the DNC chair “to open up and include many more people.”
The Democrats really do need to open things up.
To that end, says Gabbard, the party should be a lot more flexible when it comes to organizing its own debates and allowing candidates to participate in debates organized by others.
“We have some very serious candidates running for president. And the policy that the chairwoman has put in place basically says that if they participate in any other debate outside of the DNC six sanctioned debates, then they’ll be punished. They won’t be allowed to participate in any of the DNC debates,” she said Tuesday. “This is just wrong, in my view.”
The congresswoman is right.
As the first debate confirmed, Democrats have a lot to debate, and they can do so in a way that is potentially beneficial to front-runner Hillary Clinton and to the candidates who would seek to displace her. The great danger for the Democratic Party is not more debates, more engagement; it is that so much of the energy and the focus of the 2016 campaign seems to be on the Republican side.
Yes, the GOP debates have been volatile, at times catastrophic. But they have also been engaging. They have gotten the GOP base excited and drawn attention from beyond the base. If the Republicans nominate a credible contender, that candidate will enter the fall competition with a high profile and an image as someone who has already won a major battle.
That is of more value than the Democratic National Committee has understood up to this point. And it is time for a pivot.
As O’Malley has argued, aggressively and effectively, “We are the Democratic Party, not the Undemocratic Party. If we are to debate debates, the topic should be how many, not how few.”
Where should this pivot go?
Democrats should add debates to their schedule, which at this point includes only a firm events on November 14 in Des Moines, Iowa; December 19 in Manchester, New Hampshire; and January 17 in Charleston, South Carolina. Then there are vague intentions for February or March in Miami, Florida, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
At the very least, the DNC needs to schedule a debate in Ohio, a state that will be pivotal to the 2016 November race. Republicans started their debate schedule in Cleveland and will be back in Ohio for their convention. They could also end up with an Ohioan, Governor John Kasich, on the fall ticket.
Democrats ought not presume that they can simply show up sometime after Labor Day in 2016 and stake a claim on Ohio, or on other battleground states such as Colorado and North Carolina.
Bringing debates to battleground states is a smart strategy. So, too, is bringing debates to states where it is possible to focus on issues and constituencies that will be central to the 2016 race. An Arizona or New Mexico debate focusing on immigration would make great sense, as would a Michigan debate on the future of manufacturing and job creation. Why not go to Missouri or Maryland and get real about all the issues of policing and mass incarceration raised by the #BlackLivesMatter movement? Why not take a debate to the Bay Area and talk about the tech issues that are so vital and yet so frequently neglected? Why not go to North Carolina and debate about voter disenfranchisement and the future of democracy?
There are plenty of places where the candidates can and should debate.
The question is whether will go big for democracy.
Congresswoman Gabbard gets something that DNC chair Wasserman Schultz needs to recognize. Democrats must display a “greater engagement in our democratic process at a critical time.”