Clinton’s Democratic Opponents Upset With Parsimonious Debate Schedule

Some of Hillary Clinton's Democratic opponents are complaining about the DNC's parsimonious debate schedule.

2016 Democratic Field

Some of Hillary Clinton’s opponents for the Democratic nomination are complaining about the Democratic National Committee’s rather parsimonious schedule for primary debates:

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley thinks the Democratic Party’s decision to limit the number of primary debates is tantamount to rigging the nomination process.

“Four debates and only four debates — we are told, not asked — before voters in our earliest states make their decision,” the presidential candidate said at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Summer Meeting on Friday.

“This sort of rigged process has never been attempted before,” he added. “One debate in Iowa. That’s it. One debate in New Hampshire. That’s all we can afford.”

After O’Malley’s speech wrapped up, observers noted palpable tension as he greeted DNC Chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

O’Malley had previously criticized the DNC’s decision to hold only four debates before early states cast votes as “undemocratic,” and questioned the legality of the schedule.

He has also said Democrats are making a “big mistake” by rushing to make Clinton the party’s nominee.

“I think it’s a big mistke for us as a party to circle the wagons around the inevitable front-runner,” O’Malley said on Thursday.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has pulled ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire polls, has also been critical of the schedule:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) believes the Democratic Party is using its limited primary debate schedule to rig the nomination process.

“I do,” Sanders reportedly responded when asked Friday whether he agrees with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s assertion that the debate system is “rigged.”

The two Democratic presidential candidates were speaking at the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Minneapolis on Friday.

This sort of rigged process has never been attempted before,” O’Malley said in his speech earlier Friday.

The DNC has drawn criticism for scheduling only four debates before the early-primary states cast their votes, and six total throughout the election cycle.

DNC spokeswoman Holly Shulman defended the schedule, saying it will “give plenty of opportunity for the candidates to be seen side-by-side.”

“I’m sure there will be lots of other forums for the candidates to make their case to voters, and that they will make the most out of every opportunity,” Shulman said in a statement, according to The Washington Post.

Sanders previously said he would not agree to additional debates unless all of the Democratic presidential candidates participated.

But he has expressed concern with the number of debates.

“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,” Sanders said in a statement earlier this month. “I look forward to working with the DNC to see if we can significantly expand the proposed debate schedule.”

“Further, I also think it is important for us to debate not only in the early states but also in many states which currently do not have much Democratic presidential campaign activity,” Sanders wrote in a letter to DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) in June.

While I initially dismissed the complaints that were made when the Democratic debate schedule was first announced, it does appear that O’Malley and Sanders have a legitimate argument here. By the time the Democrats hold their first debate on October 13th in Las Vegas, the Republican candidates for President will have already held two prime time debates as well as a forum broadcast on C-SPAN that included nearly all of the declared candidates for the Presidential nomination. By the time we reach the day of the Iowa Caucuses, there will have been six GOP debates, and the month of February will see three more, two in the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina respectively and one that will be jointly broadcast by NBC News and Telemundo that will be held in Texas. In addition to starting their debate schedule, much earlier, Democrats will also have only four debates before the Iowa Caucuses, to be followed by only two more in either February or March to be held in Miami and Wisconsin. Finally, three of the four Democratic debates that will be held before the Iowa Caucuses will be held on a Saturday or Sunday when viewership is likely to be low. By the end of the process, Republicans will have had at least eleven debates, and Democrats will have had six.

The large number of debates on the Republican side, of course, is reflective of the fact that the race for the Republican nomination is far more competitive than the race on the Democratic side. Even with the recent rise of Donald Trump in the polls, it remains far too early to make any reasonable predictions about how that race might turn out. On the Democratic side, that doesn’t really seem to be the case. While Hillary Clinton has dropped in the polls from the heights she was at several months ago, and is currently fending off a challenge from Sanders in New Hampshire, it still seems overwhelmingly apparent that she will be the nominee of the party while the candidates that are challenging her are struggling to even put together a competent nationwide campaign.

That being said, the probability that a certain candidate is likely to win the party nomination should not be the primary criteria in determining a debate schedule. These debates are supposed to be an opportunity for voters to find out more about these candidates, where they stand on the issues that will be important in the election, and provide at least some opportunity to judge their temperament and judgment in unscripted situations. Given the fact that there are only five candidates running for the Democratic nomination, a two hour or ninety minute debate should be an excellent opportunity for all of the candidates to do more than present the sound bites that are typical in multi-candidate debates. There doesn’t seem to me to be any reasonable reason to restrict those opportunities in the way the DNC is doing here.

Some observers have argued that the debate schedule is designed to protect Clinton, and it’s hard to argue with that premise. Front-runners always try to limit debates or any other joint free media time with their opponents, both because it limits the chances that they will say anything that can be used against them on the campaign trail and because it limits the opportunity for opponents to connect with voters. It’s also undeniable that Hillary Clinton is not a very good debater. She certainly isn’t as good as her husband was, and the debates in the 2008 campaign seemed to establish that she wasn’t a very good debater and that she often made mistakes that came back to bite her. Given the fact that she was sharing the stage with Barack Obama, the contrast was palpable. Given that, the argument that someone isn’t trying to protect Clinton does seem to have at least some merit.

It’s unlikely that the debate schedule will be changed regardless of how many times that O’Malley and Sanders complain. For one thing, their complaints aren’t really getting much media attention since political coverage at the moment is basically all about Donald Trump. For another, neither one of them has nearly enough clout among rank-and-file Democrats to put the kind pressure on the DNC that would be needed here. Neither Jim Webb not Lincoln Chafee have chimed on this, but it’s unlikely their complaints would get any traction either. If Vice-President Biden got into the race and made this an issue, it’s possible that might force change. Barring that, though, it would appear that the DNC’s “keep Hillary safe” strategy will be allowed to continue.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Politicians, US Politics, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Off topic I know, but would Dr. Joiner be interested in weighing in on the following article?
    http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/29/west-point-professor-target-legal-critics-war-on-terror?CMP=share_btn_link

  2. Tillman says:

    It’s also undeniable that Hillary Clinton is not a very good debater. She certainly isn’t as good as her husband was, and the debates in the 2008 campaign seemed to establish that she wasn’t a very good debater and that she often made mistakes that came back to bite her. Given the fact that she was sharing the stage with Barack Obama, the contrast was palpable.

    I’m not certain on this. Since there was very little policy difference between Obama and Clinton, ’08 came down to contrasts in speaking style and oratory more than debate. If Clinton was a poor debater, the debates would have sunk her sooner. I believe her defeat in the ’08 primary was based more on the enduring Clintonian image of sleaze, how it kept her campaign from utilizing possibly-underhanded tactics effectively (the 3am phone call ad), and how the campaign itself chose to react to attacks. (It is stuck in my head forever how she said, “Shame on you, Barack Obama!”)

    In fact, revisiting the “shame on you” episode, I noticed she accused Obama of using Republican tactics. It’s been a talking point going back to ’08: she draws a contrast between respectable, Democratic politics and craven, Rovian politics (~1:30), and Democrats criticizing her are illegitimate regardless of the veracity of the criticism because they are echoing Republican points. No wonder I’ve been having weird moments of deja vu around here for the last few months.

  3. John425 says:

    Of course, it’s easy for O’Malley to claim that the process is rigged, because …. well, it is, to some extent. Democrats don’t want a primary battle; they want Republicans to have a primary battle while they have a coronation. The problem with that strategy is the Queen herself. Hillary Clinton has all of the royal attitude, but precious little of the necessary candidate aptitude. And voters are starting to notice.
    People point to the angry populism in the GOP base, but Democrats have the same problem. In fact, it may well be worse for them, given the circumstances. They are clearly trying to shield their frontrunner from having to answer questions in front of the media, which has been Hillary’s Achilles heel, and limiting the number of debates does that as well as limiting the opportunities for challengers to attract support. If the DNC continues to put its thumb on the scales so obviously, the anti-establishment momentum within their base will fracture the party, especially in service of protecting a mediocrity like Hillary Clinton.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    @John425:

    You don’t know what you’re talking about. The Democratic Party is in zero danger of fracturing. But I’d put the odds of the GOP no longer being a truly national party at a good 20% by 2017.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: The guy sounds like complete loon, but the article raises the possibility he’s voicing opinions held by some non-trivial portion of the military. It would be interesting to see Dr. Joyner’s take on how representative the guy is, if at all.

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    Front-runners always try to limit debates or any other joint free media time with their opponents, both because it limits the chances that they will say anything that can be used against them on the campaign trail and because it limits the opportunity for opponents to connect with voters.

    I’d say that’s correct. It’s perfectly understandable for someone in Hillary’s position with such a commanding lead. Being that far out means her numbers are going to have a much easier time going down than up; from her perspective there’s little to gain and much to lose by agreeing to a more extensive debate schedule.

  7. Peacewood says:

    I’m probably in the minority here, but I don’t see how the Democratic debates could be described as scarce. Four debates, IMHO, is plenty of time for five main competitors to present their positions and air out their disagreements. (Heck, I’d even go so far as to say that three would be enough.)

    It only seems threadbare in comparison to the Republican debates, but they’ve got the overloaded clown car problem and the Dems don’t.

  8. Tyrell says:

    There is the don’t rock the boat, don’t crash the party, and don’t upset the applecart attitude of some of the Democratic Party leaders. This is understandable and has happened before. They want a coronation, not an election.
    These debates will be controlled, scripted, programmed, and sanitized, as they have been.
    Real issues will be avoided.
    The candidates: Sanders – exciting, likeable, trustworthy, spells out his views and programs. There is nothing not to like about Sanders.
    O’Malley – messed up by apologizing for making a statement that there was nothing to apologize for. His candidacy was permanently damaged.
    Jim Webb – has a lot of potential and a good background, but needs to be aggressive and stand out. He needs to be more “Trump like”.
    Chafee – not going, his car is still in the pits.
    Hillary – not trusted or even well liked. She does better with small groups or interviews. She has experience, organization, and knows the Washington system, with no learning experience needed. She has a proven toughness.

  9. Grewgills says:

    By the end of the process, Republicans will have had at least eleven debates, and Democrats will have had six.

    There will be 10 people on stage at the republican debates and 5 on stage at the democratic debates so each of the candidates, dem and gop, will have had a similar amount of time to speak on the national debate stage. On the democratic side they will have had more opportunity to answer in a longer more coherent form with debates that can look more like actual debates. Whether that happens or not is an open question on both counts.