Bernie Sanders will be debating Hillary Clinton as they compete for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Indeed, it looks like the two announced contenders—and prospective yet unannounced candidates such as former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee—could debate six times.
The Democratic National Committee announced Tuesday that it will sanction six debates between candidates seeking the nomination. DNC Chair Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz says the debates will begin this fall, as part of an effort to “give Democratic voters multiple opportunities to size up the candidates for the nomination side-by-side.” They will have plenty to debate, as there are big differences between the announced candidates on issues of war and peace, the Patriot Act, trade policy, and a whole lot more. And if Chafee, O’Malley, and Webb get in (along, potentially, with others), more distinctions on issues ranging from immigration to climate change to diplomacy will be highlighted.
There are a lot of debate specifics to be worked out—including dates and locations. But the DNC announcement is a welcome acknowledgement, coming just days after Sanders joined Clinton in the running, that the race for the party’s 2016 nomination will be competitive. The former secretary of state maintains a daunting lead in most polls, and her clear front-runner status had stirred speculation about whether she would debate. Tuesday’s announcement, in combination with recent statements from Wasserman Schultz and signals from the Clinton camp, have laid the speculation to rest.
Score a point for Democratic democracy—and points also to the party’s webmasters for highlighting the competition at the top of its site with pictures of the two announced candidates and a message that “Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are officially in the presidential race.” When additional candidates enter the competition, it’s vital for the DNC to respect them all—understanding the primary campaigns can take unexpected turns and that (as Clinton well knows) front-runner status is not always permanent.
As for the debates, there is still a lot to be sorted out, including dates and locations.
The DNC plan is to schedule broadcast debates—with, the committee says, digital platforms and local media collaboration—in the early-primary and -caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. That leaves openings for two more major debates, according to the plan announced Tuesday.
Of course, there could be even more. When politics gets interesting, debates proliferate. And that’s a good thing.
Debates are essential to the political process. Voters need to see more from candidates than 30-second commercials. That is why The Nation, as part of its “45” project to open up the 2016 political process, has made advocacy for open debates—in the primary season and the fall—a central focus. More than a year ago, the magazine editorialized about how “We’ll keep an eye on the debate about debates in the primary season—and not just on (Republican National Committee chairman) Reince Priebus’s crude attempt to turn GOP debates into little more than joint press conferences. We’ll also keep an eye on the need for Democrats to hold primary debates—even if Clinton maintains what is currently the most commanding poll lead in history for an open Democratic nomination.”
In that spirit, here’s one big gripe about the Democratic plan.
According to the DNC’s statement, “While a six sanctioned debate schedule is consistent with the precedent set by the DNC during the 2004 and 2008 cycles, this year the DNC will further manage the process by implementing an exclusivity requirement. Any candidate or debate sponsor wishing to participate in DNC debates, must agree to participate exclusively in the DNC-sanctioned process. Any violation would result in forfeiture of the ability to participate in the remainder of the debate process.”
Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats should leave that sort of “control freakery” to Priebus and the Republicans. If several candidates decide to debate, particularly in a state that might not otherwise host a session, that’s to the good. If civil-rights or labor groups want to schedule forums and invite candidates, the contenders should not be able to use the excuse that they do not want to violate party rules.
The American political process features too few debates. And the ones that do take place are too controlled. The Democratic National Committee ought not be in the business of restricting options for additional debates. It should be encouraging more of them.