Monday, June 17, 2019

Once Again, the Debates Are Going to Cause the DNC Plenty of Grief

The Democratic National Committee faced a lot of criticism for the way it organized presidential nomination debates in 2016. Originally, the party only planned six debates (there ended up being nine), and the first event wasn't held until mid-October 2015—in contrast to the Republicans, who held a total of twelve debates beginning in early August. One of the Democratic debates was held on the Saturday before Christmas, and another occurred over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in January 2016. The Bernie Sanders campaign suspected that the DNC had intentionally scheduled the debates in order to minimize their likely viewership—and, not coincidentally, to deprive Sanders of a large audience for his challenge to the better-known front-runner Hillary Clinton. Complaints about the debates thus became part of the larger case that Sanders supporters built against the DNC for "rigging" the nomination process in Clinton's favor.

Desperate to preserve its popular legitimacy and prove its dedication to equality and inclusion, the DNC changed its ways in advance of the 2020 election. There would be twelve debates in all, and the first event would be held much earlier—in the last week of June 2019. And, importantly, the standards for inclusion in the June and July debates would be very forgiving, in order to forestall accusations that the party was being exclusionary or manipulative: candidates would need only to reach 1 percent in three polls of Democratic voters or to attract 65,000 financial donors. If there were too many candidates to fit in a single debate, the party wouldn't consign secondary candidates to a separate, lower-status "undercard" or "kiddie table" debate, as the Republicans did in 2016. Instead, each candidate would be assigned to one of two consecutive nights via a random draw, stratified in order to ensure that the top contenders in the polls didn't all happen to wind up on the same stage.

But as so often happens in life, maneuvering to address one set of problems can create a new, different set of problems—with no guarantee that the original set will indeed be solved. The scheduling of very early debates with modest eligibility requirements turned out to be something of an attractive nuisance, helping to draw into the race a record-breaking flotilla of candidates enticed by the prospect of national television exposure. With ten candidates participating in each of two 2-hour debates, it's likely that each individual candidate won't get much of a chance to make his or her case to the voters even as a lot of camera time will collectively be consumed by contenders with little or no chance of winning the nomination.

Acknowledging these inconvenient consequences of its own policies, the DNC has indicated that the inclusion criteria will become more stringent beginning with the third debate in September, requiring candidates to reach 2 percent in at least four polls and to receive financial support from at least 130,000 donors. But if a higher threshold succeeds in solving the problem of a debate stage too crowded with also-rans, it will simultaneously exacerbate the older problem of a party perceived to be favoring some candidates over others. Montana governor Steve Bullock is already complaining that his exclusion from next week's debates means that the party isn't hearing "different voices," and it's very possible that the DNC-is-silencing-me caucus could expand by the fall to include multiple sitting senators whose campaigns have yet to catch on with the public.

Maybe nobody will care much that candidates with little popular support aren't invited to future debates. But internal party warfare tends to attract substantial media attention, and frequent complaints from journalists that there are too many Democrats running for president hardly guarantee that they will come to the party's defense when it acts to further limit the number of debate participants. Voters could easily form a vague impression that something about the process was unfair without necessarily supporting, or even recognizing, any of the excluded candidates.

Media figures also love to hype debates in advance, even though they often turn out to be bored in practice by the rehearsed rhetoric and awkward one-liners that usually dominate the proceedings. Anything that dampens anticipatory excitement, then, tends to provoke a fair amount of journalistic grousing. The DNC attempted to ensure that the top candidates were evenly divided between the two debate events next week—but because it defined "top" as polling at only 2 percent or higher, it wound up assigning four of the five leading candidates to a single debate group. Even worse for media critics, the one candidate left out (Elizabeth Warren) is the trendiest at the moment, depriving pundits of the juicy prospect of potential Warren vs. Biden or Warren vs. Sanders in-person showdowns. Journalists responded to the announcement of the debate lineups last Friday with considerable disappointment on social media, despite the DNC's hopes of using the process to demonstrate its scrupulous devotion to fairness and equality.

The centrality of debates in presidential nomination politics is a fairly recent development; the 2012 Republican race is arguably the first nomination contest in which debates played a major role in influencing the dynamics. With their interests increasingly at stake in these events, parties have understandably responded by asserting more control over their production. But the Democratic Party in particular is also extremely sensitive to accusations that any new rules imposed on the process infringe on the sacred right of "the people" to choose a nominee without the stain of elite interference. The DNC is attempting to thread its way through the narrow straits separating excessive chaos from excessive order, but it seems unlikely to do so without attracting simultaneous criticism that it is being both too strict and too indulgent. When it comes to presidential nominations, it's impossible to satisfy everybody—and easy to satisfy nobody.