DNC chair to Booker: We set a "frankly low bar" to promote diversity, you know

There might be an answer to Cory Booker’s complaints about a lack of diversity on tonight’s debate stage, but this ain’t it, chief. Earlier today, the erstwhile Democratic presidential contender told CBS This Morning in a debate preview that he remains “very concerned” about the monochromatic line-up for tonight’s debate. Not even Andrew Yang will make an appearance among the six candidates who qualified under the DNC’s rules. “We have got to find a way as a party, as a nation, both parties,” Booker urged, “to understand that we are a diverse nation.”

While he complimented his fellow Democrats in the race, he said he is “very concerned” about the lack of diversity in the remaining candidates. There are now 12 people running for the Democratic nomination for president, and the smallest field yet of Democratic presidential candidates will take the stage in Des Moines Tuesday night in a critical debate before the Iowa caucuses.

All six candidates who will be in the debate — Former Vice President Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and billionaire executive Tom Steyer — are white.

“I still remember the reaction when Kamala Harris dropped off the stage, amongst black women in my life. It was almost like, ‘Wait a minute, here’s a woman that won in California twice, who has been extraordinary, and she couldn’t even get to Iowa. How could we have a situation that is creating that kind of dynamic?'” he said. “We have got to find a way as a party, as a nation, both parties, to understand that we are a diverse nation.”

This complaint is nothing new from Booker, who warned at the time he first struggled to qualify with the DNC’s slowly increasing thresholds that the party was sacrificing diversity for efficiency. These complaints started by implication in September, but after Harris’ by-then-expected departure in December, he began explicitly ringing the bell on “diversity.” Now that he’s had to drop out after missing two debates, Booker’s got even more reason to complain — and having one more billionaire on stage than a person of color tonight certainly doesn’t help matters in a party obsessed with identity politics. It’s even four men versus only two women, for that matter.

Anticipating this, DNC chair Tom Perez made an appearance on CNN’s New Day earlier this morning to defend his organization’s debate thresholds. John Berman pressed Perez to explain “what’s wrong with this picture?” Perez claims that the Democratic Party bent over backwards to ensure diversity, saying that they set a “frankly low bar” to ensure it:

But in an interview with CNN’s John Berman on “New Day,” Perez said the party cannot change its rules to ensure minority candidates don’t drop out before the nominating process begins, a day after one of the field’s most prominent black candidates suspended his campaign after not qualifying for the debate.

“We’ve set a really remarkably inclusive, and frankly low bar throughout the campaigns … and I’m proud of that,” Perez said. “And as a result of that, we did have the most diverse field in American history. And what we’ve said every month was that the closer we got to Iowa we would do what we’ve always done, which is raise the bar.”
He continued: “But we made the rules, they were very transparent, they’re very inclusive, and we can’t change the rules midstream because there’s a candidate that I wish were on but didn’t make the debate stage.”

Oof. Perez is kinda-sorta on the right track here, at least in defending the way the rules were structured, but claiming to have set “a frankly low bar” in defense of one’s efforts on diversity is not going to go over well. He’s correct in that these aren’t particularly strenuous tests, especially at this stage of the primaries, and cites candidates in previous cycles who did better than Booker. But by implication, Perez is arguing that a low bar is necessary for diversity, at least in this cycle. Expect this to be yet another reason why Perez is heading for the dustbin of DNC chairs sooner rather than later.

Another reason still is that Perez misses the point on the debates. The reason why the DNC uses these metrics is to try reducing fringe candidates so that voters can hear more from those who are rationally still potential winners. They wouldn’t need to use such metrics if they had a more rational debate system, or at least the need would be lessened. Putting even six people on stage for two hours with three or four moderators and commercial breaks means splitting time down to an average of about ten minutes, broken up by questions, responses, audience reactions, etc. It would be far more effective to pair up two candidates for twenty minutes and one moderator posing the same issue arenas to each pairing, and would give candidates more room to be themselves rather than game-show contestants. At least that way, each candidate gets the same amount of time, and then the polling and donor metrics might have a more rational connection to performance.

Make no mistake about it, though — Democrats will have a tough time explaining the blinding paleness of tonight’s debate to a party which they themselves have defined by identity politics. Discussion of “low bars” won’t help, either.