Former DNC chair says the debate plan will give candidates enough time to show their strengths, have a robust exchange
In past cycles, the number of debates was too large, bogging down the candidates and hurting their chances, he says
Editor’s Note: Donald L. Fowler, who served as the Democratic National Committee Chair from 1995 to 1997, is a political science professor at the University of South Carolina and founder of Fowler Communications. Fowler is supporting Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential nomination contest. He is a current Democratic National Committee member and a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee. The opinion expressed in this commentary are his.
Five months before the Iowa Caucus, and nearly 15 months before Election Day, excitement for the 2016 election is building among Democratic activists.
I’m not sure we could have imagined better motivation than seeing Donald Trump sitting atop the Republican polls, trailed by the prospect of yet another President Bush. It seems to have been the kick in the pants Democrats needed to get off the couch and get to work defending the considerable achievements of President Obama’s time in office, especially considering the party’s lackluster performance during the 2014 midterms.
At the moment, that excitement has manifested as concern over the rules governing how the Democratic Party will choose our next presidential nominee. We need to ensure that we nominate a candidate who is prepared for the rigors of a campaign, not to mention holding the highest office in the land. Thankfully, I see five such qualified candidates on the Democratic side, and potentially a few more, while I’ve yet to see one among the 15 or 20 Republicans vying for their nomination.
So while I understand the concerns that some Democrats have expressed concerning the debate schedule, I wholeheartedly agree with the schedule as currently structured. This schedule is best for our candidates, our supporters, and for voters. Most importantly, I believe that it puts Democrats in the best possible position to win in November 2016 with a tested nominee, operating from a position of strength.
Why we debate
As a former DNC chair, I’m familiar with the guiding principles that are taken into consideration when creating a debate schedule.
The goal is to set a reasonable number of debates that maximizes voters’ opportunity to see the candidates side by side, while remaining manageable for all of the participants. To be clear, I haven’t always seen the Democratic Party do this. Since my time as chair, several cycles have turned into unruly and out-of-control situations more hurtful than beneficial to our party.
Six debates provide multiple opportunities for voters to hear our candidates share their visions for our country’s future. They also provide multiple opportunities for our candidates to engage in a rigorous discussion. But this discussion occurs not only with each other, but also with the American people. A pace of one debate per month gives candidates plenty of opportunities to engage voters at rallies, town halls, house meetings, forums, and other campaign events.
Voters need opportunities to hear the policy positions of our candidates without the constraints of a clock or the artificial limitations of a debate stage. Nobody wants our candidates focused solely on debates and debate prep at the exclusion of chances to interact directly with voters.
Another consideration is the importance of holding debates when voters are actually paying attention. Did you know that the first Republican primary debate of the 2012 election was in May 2011? Unless you’re Tim Pawlenty or Gary Johnson (who participated in the debate, unlike Mitt Romney), you probably don’t remember it.
Fall of 2015 was always the ideal window to begin the debate schedule, and October 13 fits squarely into this principle. And with each of the six sanctioned debates sponsored by a combination of state Democratic Parties, national media, digital platforms, local media, and civic organizations, these debates will be appealing and accessible to voters. These debates will reflect our party’s – and our country’s – diversity. They will include the first ever party-sanctioned Univision debate, especially important to our Hispanic citizens.
Debate negotiations rarely lead to all sides getting exactly what they want – that’s why they’re called negotiations. But this is a schedule that meets the fundamental principles that guided the process and will benefit the Democratic Party.
Learning from history
You probably recall a seemingly endless series of debates, including many non-DNC sanctioned ones, in those years, which I think has contributed to the confusion surrounding this year’s schedule.
In fact, the reason the DNC is enforcing an “exclusivity requirement,” where candidates are barred from participating in non-DNC sanctioned debates under penalty of losing their access to the sanctioned and nationally televised debates, this cycle is so that we can avoid a repeat of what happened in cycles past. In both 2004 and 2008, a lack of enforcement led to more than 20 debates. This confused voters and overwhelmed our candidates, and was an experience no one had any interest in repeating.
As much as I love politics, even I don’t really want to watch 20 Democratic and 20 Republican primary debates between now and March. Limiting the number should make it likely that more viewers will watch, and help our message break through.
It’s worth noting that in recent election cycles, the general election has featured three debates between the parties’ presidential nominees and one contest between the potential vice presidents. No one contends that three or four debates are insufficient for voters to distinguish the differences between the candidates. It is understood that the majority of campaigning will be conducted outside the debate arena, among the other events and opportunities for candidates to interact with and engage voters. This schedule enhances our candidates’ ability to do that.
During the DNC’s Summer Meeting, one of our outstanding candidates, Gov. Martin O’Malley reminded us that we as Democrats cannot remain silent in the face of Republican lies, Republican misogyny, Republican distortions about our President, and Republican disdain for our neighbors.
He was absolutely right.
But I hope that Democrats aren’t waiting for a debate stage or a convention or a presidential nominee to speak up. Because all of us have a responsibility, each and every day, through our words and our actions, to show the American people that it is the Democratic Party that is on their side, championing their well-being.
I’m proud that our presidential candidates have spoken up to call out hateful rhetoric from Donald Trump and Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, and to hold Republicans accountable for their outdated and out-of-touch policies. And I’m proud that our party leaders, elected officials, activists, supporters, and volunteers have done the same. I expect that each of them will continue to remind people what it means to be a Democrat, using every platform they have to keep fighting for middle-class families.
What it means for 2016
That’s why I’m encouraged by the debate over the debates. It’s an indication that Democrats are engaged in the political process, moving past the complacency that plagued us in 2010 and 2014.
The current schedule was structured to put the Democratic nominee, whoever it eventually is, in the best position to win next November. I expect that our candidates will participate in the DNC-sanctioned debates, and capitalize on the numerous other opportunities that exist to interact with voters on the campaign trail.
And Democratic activists will channel their energy into what we do best: knocking on doors, making phone calls, registering and educating new voters, and relying on the strength of our grassroots supporters to win in 2016.
Note: The editor’s note in this article has been updated to include the author’s support for Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.