As we’ve broken out the popcorn and watched the meltdown among Democrats over the question of their primary debates I’ve been noticing one marked similarity between the 2012 cycle and this year: the Democrats are still treating this contest as if the Republicans were the only ones holding an open primary. The way that Debbie Wasserman Schultz is running things you would think that her party already has an incumbent in office and there’s really no need to talk about anyone else being in contention. If we needed any more evidence to support this premise it can be found in a column from Greg Sargent at the Washington Post. Those familiar with Greg’s previous work will be aware that you’re unlikely to find many folks in the media who are more heavily invested in electing Democrats, so if he’s willing to point out some flies in their ointment it’s probably a solid story.
The “big idea” behind this tale is that while Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders (along with the latter’s army of supporters) are arguing for more debates, Hillary Clinton’s team was fighting all along to have even less, and the DNC chair clearly got the memo.
Last spring, when negotiations between the DNC and the Dem campaigns over the debate schedule got underway in earnest, the Clinton camp’s preference was to have only four debates, one in each of the early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, according to a senior Democrat with knowledge of those conversations.
Asked to comment on this version of events, DNC spokesperson Holly Schulman didn’t immediately dispute it, but declined comment. A Clinton spokesperson didn’t immediately return an email. (This version comports with Politico’s reporting that the Clinton camp prefers to keep the number of debates low.)
That part isn’t much of a surprise. Clinton has seen herself as the Candidate of Destiny since long before she officially announced. When you consider yourself the incumbent (or at least the obvious leader) there is no upside to debates. They offer you nothing and only open the door to upstarts having a brilliant moment which helps them tear you down. You’ll also be asked to stake out positions which could cause problems down the line in the general election. In that sense, pushing for fewer and later debates was a no brainer for Team Clinton.
But the real news here is that the timing of the few debates they did manage to schedule was an even greater bone of contention.
The dates of the debates were announced in August. It was at that point that outrage really began to build, because the dates themselves created a situation that began to be seen as problematic. (Those dates are October 13, November 14th, December 19th, January 17th, and two in February or March that are not nailed down yet.)
The problem is that of the four debates that are actually scheduled, three come on weekends (as opposed to during weeknight prime time), one of them on the weekend between the end of Hanukkah and Christmas. The two remaining (as yet unscheduled) debates are in February or March, one on Univision and the other on PBS.
Virtually every factor in that schedule is designed in an obvious fashion to keep public awareness of the rest of the candidates to a minimum and to make sure that even a breakout debate performance by an upstart will come too late to seriously dent Hillary. Think about those details for a moment. The Republicans are already through two of their debates with another one coming next month. Two major, credible candidates have already dropped out and the field is thinning. The debate have been held on the major news outlets most likely to draw the largest audiences.
Now look at the Democrats’ schedule. While they keep talking about six debates, two of them will take place after the voting has already begun and momentum is building for whoever takes the early states. And of the four that will take place before the voting begins, three of them are on weekends (which are a ratings dud compared to prime time on a weeknight) with one of those being right when the country is diving into the Christmas break. The only one which seems to provide any real opportunity for a big hit will come on January 17th which is – coincidentally I’m sure – on a Sunday night during the NFL playoffs.
This game is completely rigged and the Democrat challengers are right to be upset. Unfortunately for them I don’t know that there’s anything they can do about it at this point. If Debbie Wasserman Schultz doesn’t budge they’re probably up the creek without a paddle, and it doesn’t look like she’s going to. The coronation is proceeding right on schedule unless Bernie or Uncle Joe can move enough of the electorate to overcome the power of the party elders.