Democratic Party officials have already come under justifiable fire for a presidential debate schedule that can only be described as leisurely. Now the time has come for them to acknowledge their mistake and add more debates.
Whether the original schedule was designed to favor front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton is no longer an issue. Far more critical is that the sedate pace of one debate a month fails to address the fast-breaking pace of world events — particularly as a newly aggressive Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continues to sow chaos and threaten global instability.
For better or worse, debates have become a primary means by which American voters gauge their candidates. Republicans have garnered record numbers in their debates — 24 million for the last one — and gained high exposure for their issues.
Compare that with the paltry 8.6 million for a debate the Democrats deliberately scheduled last week for the black hole that is Saturday night television. Even so, CBS doubled its typical viewership for that slot, proof that viewers were hungry to hear from presidential candidates in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.
Whatever fault may be found with their formats or moderators, the GOP is giving voters ample opportunity to see their candidates in unscripted settings, and each debate has revealed new strengths and weaknesses in that field. In February alone, Republican candidates will hold four debates — as many as the entire remaining Democratic primary debate schedule.
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee who publicly excoriated the DNC for the schedule, said he is working with party officials to at least add televised forums where candidates could be questioned on issues. Limiting debates, he said, was a mistake that has also hampered Democrats’ ability to shape the national discussion and build excitement for their issues. “It would have been dramatically easier to do this earlier,” he said of adding forums, “but I believe we still have time.”
As a former secretary of state and the leading contender, Clinton in particular should welcome either more debates or individual forums where she takes questions that allow her to fully address her record and vision. Rivals Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley lack Clinton’s resources and are exceptionally dependent on public debates to make their cases. Democrats should encourage, not squelch, such competition.
It’s hard not to cast a cynical eye on a debate schedule that targets its February debate after the crucial Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary and waits for its March debate until after that month’s Super Tuesday, when 11 states will have already made their choices.
Democrats appear to be shielding their eventual nominee during the primary season, leaving the inevitable pressure-testing for the general election. That is a high-stakes gamble they may come to regret.