Democrats — and most important, democracy — stand to lose if more debates are not added to the party’s schedule. The current plan to hold six, and only four before the first four crucial caucus and primary states vote, does a disservice to the candidates and especially to voters. Most disappointingly, it clearly appears that the Democratic National Committee, which should be neutral on candidates but advocate for voters, is favoring the front-runner, Hillary Clinton.
“We’re the Democratic Party, not the undemocratic party,” thundered Martin O’Malley at last week’s DNC meeting in Minneapolis. His justifiable criticism was met by cheers from attendees, but also by an unmistakable, unprofessional glare from Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the party’s chairwoman. But the glare might as well been directed toward voters, who have every right to expect more frequent opportunities to weigh candidates for the world’s most important and powerful post.
Many Democrats — in fact, most, according to polls — actually favor Clinton. But supporters of O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, as well as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee (and, perhaps soon, Vice President Joe Biden) should aggressively question a party process of limited debates and early “superdelegate” support that sidelines voters.
These superdelegates should speak out in favor of a more open process, too, even if they have overwhelmingly, and prematurely, lined up behind Clinton. In fact, Clinton would actually benefit from more forums, especially among relatively friendly Democrats. The general election will be different, with the Republican candidate constantly asking Clinton about her use of private e-mail while she was secretary of state — a mistake even the candidate acknowledges.
While blasting Republicans’ “false story,” O’Malley also said, “We respond with crickets, tumbleweeds, and a cynical move to delay and limit our own party debates.” He’s right, and this cynicism hurts voters most, considering the value of debates.
“Voters tell us that debates are more valuable, that they remember issues as they are described in debates more than in advertisements and other places. They find the debates more informative,” said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs at City University of New York. Birdsell, a noted national expert on political debates, said data indicate that the biggest beneficiaries of debates are “low-information” voters. But every voter benefits from the relatively unscripted forums. “There are real issues in a high-tension format and you learn about people — their fluency with figures and their ability to translate complex topics, whether people are genuine or authentic — in ways that can’t be done or are difficult to do in an advertisement,” Birdsell said.
Any candidate worthy of the White House should embrace more, not fewer, of these opportunities. Limiting debates, as the DNC seems to be doing, damages the party and its eventual nominee.