In my imagination, a weary Tom Perez turns to an aide at the Democratic National Committee and says, wistfully, “Tell me about how it was.”
“Mr. Chairman, at the first televised presidential debate in 1960, there were just two candidates, sitting side by side in a Chicago TV studio. They each made opening statements of eight minutes … ”
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Perez begins to sob quietly.
“Eight minutes,” he murmurs. “Eight minutes … ”
We can forgive the DNC chairman his imaginary grief. As the 2020 campaign beckons, the Democrats are facing the improbable probability that more than two dozen candidates will be pursuing the presidency. Imposing a rational structure for TV debates with such a large field will be not just improbable but impossible.
Well, with one exception: The only way to do this fairly is to get rid of all the debates. That’s right: No debates! Let’s cancel political Christmas, at least for all of next year.
There is widespread consensus among Democrats that the party’s 2016 approach—a handful of primary debates, two of which were on weekends—did not work. But in that year, there were only a handful of candidates at the outset. The Republicans, by contrast, had 17 contenders, which forced the party to split debates between “serious” contenders (measured by poll numbers) and a “kiddie table” of lesser entrants, including former and sitting senators (Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul) and governors from big states (Rick Perry, George Pataki).
If in fact 25 or 30 Democrats decide to run, the challenge of a rational debate process becomes insurmountable. The DNC, according to the Washington Post, is contemplating going beyond poll numbers—“possibly including staffing, fundraising and number of office locations”—to decide who participates and how. (History note—back in December 2007, perennial is-he-kidding candidate Alan Keyes opened an office in Iowa for the sole purpose of being included in a Republican presidential debate).
But in a field that could include entrants ranging from a former vice president to the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, any process of inclusion will be ludicrous. Perhaps the debates can be segmented by net worth, with a special billionaires’ forum among Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and Howard Schultz. Maybe age could be the measure, with the septuagenarians one night, the Gen Xers another.)
No matter how the field is divided, the prospect of any meaningful exchange of ideas among even seven or eight participants is nonexistent. My memory of the 2016 GOP debates is an endless clamor for the chance to offer a 30-second response to a one-minute answer to a question more or less forgotten by the time the last debater got a chance to speak.
History’s most memorable debates involved either two candidates facing off for extended periods of time—the Lincoln-Douglas debates during the 1858 Senate race featured one-hour opening statements and 90-minute rebuttals—or debates focused on a single topic. In 1948, New York Governor Tom Dewey and ex-Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen staged a radio debate just before the Oregon primary where the subject was: “Should the U.S. Communist Party be outlawed?” In our time, presidential primary debates offer up enough candidates to reshoot the stateroom scene of the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera, where what is remembered—and even the journalistic goal—is a sound bite that enhances or destroys a candidacy in a few seconds. (“I’m paying for this microphone!” … “Where’s the beef?”… “You’re likable enough, Hillary”… “And let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction.”)
If voters want to get a sense of what a candidate believes, or what the nature of a president might be, there are any number of formats—town hall meetings, half-hour speeches, give-and-takes with voters on a single subject—where the signal-to-noise ratio is a lot higher than debates where dueling one-liners determine the victor.
Faced with those 17 candidates in 2016, the Republicans staged their first debate on August 6, 2015. (Democrats, with a much smaller field, waited until October). With perhaps double that number this time, there may be a temptation to begin even earlier, to give the field more exposure.
Doing so, however, would mean putting candidates on the debate stage who have no credible reason to be there. Without seeing how these men and women perform during the opening stages of the campaign, there’s no way to draw any sound conclusion about who should count as a “real” contender. Maybe Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, has no business running for president, or maybe he strikes a chord. Maybe Howard Schultz discovers that, like Steve Forbes, wealth doesn’t bring voters to your side. But maybe he has a message that does. Maybe the better-known faces from the Senate—Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand—suffer the same fate in presidential battle of most sitting senators. Or maybe they follow the path of Obama and JFK.
So, please, Chairman Perez, put the debates on hold for as long as possible, to let the field sort itself out. There’s no reason to have any debates in 2019. We can start in 2020, right before the voting starts.
Then, instead of a campaign dominated by a flawed format in which a single sound bite can grab the attention of the media and turn a third-tier candidate into a one-week wonder (think Carly Fiorina slapping down Donald Trump), let’s see whether the candidates can impress voters over a sustained, monthslong campaign.
Given the number of candidates, even in January 2020 it is still going to be no easy task to winnow down the debaters. But it would make Perez’s task a shade less daunting. It’s easier to fit 10 pounds of stuff into a five-pound bag than 30 pounds of garbage.