Democrats Should Have a Big, Bold, Rip-Roaring Debate About Electability

Democrats Should Have a Big, Bold, Rip-Roaring Debate About Electability

Democrats Should Have a Big, Bold, Rip-Roaring Debate About Electability

Democrats should keep welcoming all three candidates to the debate stage, and they need to set the stage for additional debates in Iowa and New Hampshire.


There is a debate going on with regard to which Democratic presidential contender is most electable, and that’s terrific.

It would, of course, be absurd for any party to nominate a presidential candidate solely on the basis of electability, as that sort of calculating invariably goes awry. Abandoning all ideological principle for purposes of partisan positioning is a cynical approach to politics that is pretty much guaranteed to foster skepticism, frustrate the base, diminish turnout, and undo whatever advantage might be created by picking the supposedly “perfect” candidate. Just ask President Thomas Dewey.

But candidates can remain principled while at the same time making practical arguments for themselves. Indeed, contenders for the nominations of both parties have a certain responsibility to propose best cases and best scenarios for their candidacies. And it is certainly fair to make comparisons of those candidacies with an eye toward portraying a particular bid as stronger than another.

When candidates engage on issues of electability, it’s a signal that a nomination contest is getting more serious.

And all three Democratic presidential contenders are now sending the signal.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and her supporters have been arguing that, with her name-recognition and fund-raising advantages, she is best positioned to lead the party ticket against whomever the Republicans nominate. “We need a Democratic nominee who will be able to beat the Republicans and get the job done for Americans,” Clinton said as she accepted a Planned Parenthood endorsement in New Hampshire on Sunday. “I shudder to think about what the Republicans would do, if given the chance.” A new Clinton campaign ad features videos of Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as an announcer suggests: “They’re backward, even dangerous. So ask yourself, who is the one candidate who can stop them?” The announcer answers: “Hillary Clinton, tested and tough. To stop them, stand with her.”

Sanders and his supporters counter with polls that show Sanders actually runs better than Trump and Cruz in key states. “If people are concerned about electability—and Democrats should be very concerned because we certainly don’t want to see some right-wing extremist in the White House—Bernie Sanders is the candidate,” says Sanders.

“For a start, I would urge those voters, the voters all over this country, to take a look at recent polls in which Bernie Sanders is matched with Republican candidates Trump on down [and] Hillary Clinton is matched with Republican candidates,” the candidate told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on This Week, citing a Quinnipiac Poll that had Sanders beating Trump by 13 points, while Clinton’s margin was a smaller 7 points.

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and his backers say that, as a younger contender and a fresh face on the national scene, he is the best November prospect for Democrats. In addition to arguing his own brief, O’Malley has long suggested that Clinton’s calculations make her less viable—saying that “History celebrates profiles in courage, not profiles in convenience.”

The truth is that all three contenders can make credible arguments for themselves.

They will, undoubtedly, present some of them in the third Democratic debate on Sunday night.

But the candidates should be invited to make these arguments in a more focused and detailed manner, as part of an expanded Democratic debate schedule.

That the debate schedule needs to grow should, by now, be beyond debate.

The Democrats have had so few actual debates, at such ridiculous times (the last two were on Saturday nights, and the second of them was on the weekend before Christmas), that political and media elites got bored and media elites and most Americans tuned out. As a result, while the race got more interesting on the ground (with recent national polls and surveys from Iowa and New Hampshire pointing to a Sanders surge), most commentators were focusing all their attention on the shiny toy that is Donald Trump’s candidacy.

January began with talk of making the Democratic debates even less meaningful by setting an arbitrary barrier designed to exclude O’Malley. NBC News, which is managing the January 17 debate released criteria for gaining a place on the stage of what is now set to be the last such forum before the caucus-and-primary season kicks off in Iowa on February 1.

Under the criteria, candidates had to be averaging 5 percent in the five most recent national polls, or in the five most recent polls from Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. Clinton leads national surveys and in South Carolina. Sanders leads in New Hampshire. And recent polls have him running neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa.

O’Malley’s has not been running so strongly in the polls. He’s only at 2.3 percent in the Real Clear Politics “poll of polls” averaging of national surveys. In New Hampshire, he’s at 3 percent. In South Carolina, he’s at 2.5. In Iowa, however, he’s at 5 percent. But, because of the arbitrary approach of the networks to which polls they use and which they disregard, there were headlines last week along the lines of “Martin O’Malley risks missing January 17 Democratic debate.”

O’Malley was finally alerted on Thursday that he had a debate invitation for this weekend. And rightly so. He is running better among Democrats in the first-caucus state than Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are among Republicans. Recent national polling by Fox News had O’Malley gaining a higher level of support in his race than Christie in the GOP contest—and O’Malley’s numbers are comparable with those posted for Bush.

It would, by every reasonable standard, have been wrong to exclude O’Malley from the last pre-caucus, pre-primary debate. But it is also wrong that the January 17 debate will be the last Democratic clash until mid-February.

Democrats should add debates to their calendar. They should have another one in Iowa on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, and they should have another one in New Hampshire on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. There are local and national groups, and local and national media outlets, that are prepared to step up.

Beyond the basic premise that Democrats need to grab as much of the spotlight as the Republicans (who have, from the start, maintained a much busier and better-timed debate schedule), there is a new and immediate argument for more debates.

If Democrats really disagree about which candidate is most electable as the party’s nominee, if this is a serious subject for discussion (as recent days seem to suggest is the case), then why not devote an entire debate to the question?

Hillary Clinton makes an important point when she says that Democrats should “Think hard about the people who are presenting themselves to you: their experience, their qualifications, their positions, but particularly for those of us who are Democrats—their electability.”

The best way to get that thinking started is with a debate that invites the discussion.

Let the candidates make their cases. Let moderators challenge the assertions. Let Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley go back and forth with one another on questions about bases of strength, regional appeal, and best messages.

Nomination contests should always be about more than polling data and raw measures of electability. Differences with regard to issues have to count for something, as should records of accomplishment and of standing on principle. That’s why the Democrats ought to add thematic and issue-focused debates. But if there are enough debates, then, surely, there is time for a great big, rip-roaring discussion about electability—and about why it matters.

The problem, now, is not that there are too many Democrats on the debate stage. The problem is that there are not enough Democratic debates.

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