My question: Has the Democratic debate calendar been rigged for the benefit of Hillary Clinton?
My answer: Of course it has.
Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders are obviously acting in their own best interests when they assail the Democratic National Committee’s decision to stage only six debates during the primary season. But they are right to complain.
O’Malley was right on Friday, at the DNC summer meeting, when he denounced the “rigged process.” He was right when he recently said that the paltry debate schedule is an attempt “to preordain the outcome.” And Sanders was right earlier this month: “At a time when many Americans are demoralized about politics and have given up on the political process, I think it’s imperative that we have as many debates as possible – certainly more than six.”
What’s the Democratic party afraid of?
It doesn’t take a PhD in politics to figure that out. By limiting the number of debates – the first one won’t happen until Oct. 13 – party leaders are hoping to minimize the odds of a Hillary verbal miscue. The fewer the debates, the less chance there is that Sanders (especially) will score a memorable moment at Hillary’s expense.
Hence the decision to stage only one debate in crucial Iowa – on Nov 14, two and a half months before the caucuses. Hence the decision to stage only one debate in crucial New Hampshire – on Dec. 19, a Saturday in the midst of holiday shopping season, nearly two months before the balloting. Hence the decision to stage only one debate in crucial South Carolina – on Jan. 17, more than a month before the voting.
The last time Hillary ran, in the ’08 contest, she and her rivals met on stage in party-sanctioned debates 19 times. She and her allies at the top of the party have clearly concluded that she was hurt by all that exposure. So this time it’s six.
And she did get dinged a lot during the ’07-’08 debates. She took heat for refusing to say whether she believed that undocumented immigrants should get drivers licenses (she seemed to say yes and no); she refused to be pinned down on how or whether she’d reform Social Security and whether she’d raise payroll taxes to do it; she stonewalled on whether she thought the names of Bill’s presidential library donors should be made public; and she weathered various other nicks and cuts.
But this time, slashing the debates from 19 to 6 makes her look timid and averse to scrutiny. And bottom line, the decision is politically stupid.
The Republicans are staging 12 debates during primary season – the next one is only 16 days away – and whatever you think of the GOP field and its demagogic front-runner, they’re dominating the dialogue. The first debate, on Aug. 6, drew 24 million viewers (record high for a cable debate); the typical cable debate pulls maybe a couple million. Hillary and the party hierarchy, by dint of their cautious timidity, are ceding the spotlight to the other side.
And that’s counterproductive, because surely swing voter-viewers would be interested in hearing about issues like income inequality, the reality of climate change, the best ways to tweak historic Obamacare, the upside of the Iran nuclear deal – all the stuff that Republican candidates are loathe to bring up. Surely the aforementioned issues should get equal time during debate season.
And any Democrat who fears that a robust debating regimen would demoralize the party base and depress turnout need only look at what happened in 2008. The 19 debates, which eventually featured Hillary and Obama, actually galvanized the base and stoked national interest. There were fears at the time that the occasionally heated debates between the top rivals would embitter the eventual losing team and jeopardize victory in November. The opposite occurred. Obama got more votes than any candidate in history, and his popular vote share was the highest for a Democrat since LBJ in 1964.
I get why O’Malley, in particular, is anxious for more debates. He’s polling in single digits, Sanders is outracing him on Hillary’s left, and he badly needs the “free media” exposure that only debates can provide. But it’s Hillary who really needs the maximum exposure. She needs to ditch her game of hide and seek. She needs to be on the debate stage at least as often as the Republicans – if only to trump their racist rhetoric and their attacks on the legal right to an abortion.
On Friday, O’Malley said of his party, “Silence and complacency in the face of hate is not an honorable option.” Just because he’s down in the polls doesn’t mean he’s wrong.