The Republicans Have Been Trumped; Democrats Can Organize Better Debates

The Republicans Have Been Trumped; Democrats Can Organize Better Debates

The Republicans Have Been Trumped; Democrats Can Organize Better Debates

Both parties have their work cut out for them when it comes to improving their primary debates.


As the Republican National Committee prepares to begin what was supposed to be a carefully managed and scheduled presidential debating season—but which is now turning into the Season of the Trump—the Democratic National Committee has yet to set the date for the party’s first debate.

The DNC announced in May that there would be six debates. Since then, however, details regarding the party’s approach have been sparse. There are supposedly going to be debates in Iowa and New Hampshire in August or September. There is supposed to be a South Carolina debate in October or November. There is supposed to be a Nevada debate in November or December. There are supposed to be two more debates in January—one in Iowa and one someplace else (although at that point it will be hard to say “no” to New Hampshire’s demand for a second debate).

The DNC is going to have to start filling in details soon, and there are some standards that ought to be set.

The first of these is that all of the announced and active contenders who are generally seen as serious—even if their poll numbers may be weak—should be included. The DNC sent a good signal in this regard Tuesday, when it announced that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island governor (and senator) Lincoln Chafee, and former Virginia senator Jim Webb would all be addressing the DNC Summer Meeting in Minneapolis on August 28.

The Summer Meeting is not being pitched as a debate, at least at this point. But getting all the candidates on the same stage and with equal time is the right standard for party events of this kind and for debates. The Republican decision to organize two-tier debates—one for candidates with the better poll numbers that extend from name recognition and campaign money, another for candidates who need to appear in debates to get name recognition and campaign money—is shameful. It uses scheduling and structure to lock in front-runners and also-rans. It also denies candidates who are most likely to call out Trump (think Lindsey Graham, who correctly says that the billionaire is “selling fear and prejudice”) from getting on the same stage with the top candidate in the polls.

It is true that having more candidates on stage can make things more contentious. Chafee is ready to go after Clinton on foreign-policy concerns in ways that Sanders and O’Malley might not. O’Malley might well press Sanders on gun-control and immigration issues. But challenges and pressure are good. Candidates get better when they are confronted—as evidenced by the progression of the Democratic race since the interventions of Black Lives Matter activists at Netroots Nation. And clear front-runners such as Clinton need the testing that comes in debates, as it forces them to engage and up their game not just in response to challenges from the other candidates but in response to questions from moderators and crowds.

The DNC should also abandon the exclusivity requirement that was proposed in announcing the debates back in May. Under the clause, candidate who appears in a debate that is not sanctioned by the DNC would be barred from attending a sanctioned debate. O’Malley has made a big deal of opposing this clause. The governor’s campaign says it wants “a full, robust, and inclusive set of debates—both nationally and in early primary and caucus states.” Lis Smith, O’Malley’s deputy campaign manager, has pointed out that: “This has been customary in previous primary seasons. In a year as critical as 2016, exclusivity does no one any favors.”

She’s right. The Republicans have plans for as many as a dozen debates, and the number could go up. The Democrats should:

  • Raise the number of sanctioned debates between all the serious contenders,
  • Schedule sanctioned debates in states that are not holding early caucuses and primaries, especially swing states with substantial African-American and Latino populations,
  • Allow candidates to participate in debates that have not been sanctioned by the DNC but to which all the candidates have been invited,
  • Encourage candidates bidding for the Democratic nomination to debate candidates bidding for the Republicans nomination.

That last notion was put in play by Sanders, who says, “I would like as many debates as possible, and I would also like to break new ground and have debates with Republicans and Democrats. I think that will be very positive for the American people in that we’ll be able to focus on issues. Let the Republicans defend why they want to give tax breaks to the billionaires and make massive cuts in Medicare. I would love to hear it.”

Sanders entertains the notion of one-on-one debates with Republicans or debates featuring “more than one Republican and more than one Democrat.” Imagine O’Malley, an innovative and effective governor of Maryland, debating a Republican governor such as Ohio’s John Kasich or New Jersey’s Chris Christie. Imagine Sanders and Chafee, both of whom voted against authorizing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to use military force in Iraq, debating Republican hawks such as Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham. Imagine Sanders going at it with Scott Walker over labor policy. Imagine Clinton doing what prominent Republicans have generally been unwilling to do: taking apart Donald Trump on issues such as immigration reform.

It is, of course, true that front-runners on both sides of the partisan divide are less likely to entertain unexpected and unprecedented approaches to debates. But Sanders makes an argument for pushing the limits.

“The most serious political problem facing this country is that we don’t discuss the serious issues facing this country,” he argues. “And the American people are becoming increasingly alienated from the political process; 63 percent of the American people didn’t vote last November. I’m looking for ways to bring them into a serious discussion about serious issues. When we do that, the Republican agenda will be exposed for the disaster it is.”

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