After tonight, CNN host Chris Cuomo and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow will have some things to talk about. Like, how lame the Democratic National Committee is.
Thanks to DNC rules, Maddow in November was in the same South Carolina venue as the Democratic presidential hopefuls. But she couldn’t press them together on the issues: Back in May, the party announced that there would be six sanctioned debates — including on weekends when no one is watching — involving the Democratic hopefuls. Candidates who debate outside of those parameters are in trouble, per the DNC’s exclusivity clause: “Any candidate or debate sponsor wishing to participate in DNC debates, must agree to participate exclusively in the DNC-sanctioned process,” noted the DNC. “Any violation would result in forfeiture of the ability to participate in the remainder of the debate process.” The Republican National Committee enforces the same exclusivity rule as part of its efforts to assert control over the GOP debates.
Tonight, Cuomo will host a CNN town hall event in Des Moines that is not sanctioned by the DNC. Again, the three Democratic rivals will be in the same house — in this case, Drake University’s Sheslow Auditorium (start time is 9 p.m. Eastern). And again, they won’t be appearing onstage together. Instead, Cuomo will interview them sequentially, with questions coming from the audience as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), then former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, then former secretary of state Hillary Clinton will appear for 30-minute grillings — a format that, obviously, gives Clinton the last word.
Someone, of course, has to go first and someone has to go last — but only if you’re being forced into this town hall/candidate forum setup. As for actual, honest-to-goodness Democratic presidential debates, you may have missed the most recent one, which took place on Sunday night of the MLK holiday weekend; or the one before that, which took place on the Saturday night before Christmas; or the one before that, which took place on a Saturday night in November. There has been a “tremendous amount of regret” among DNC leaders about this hide-the-debate strategy, said Mother Jones Washington Bureau Chief David Corn in a recent MSNBC appearance. Sanders himself has said that the weekend dates were set to “protect” early front-runner Clinton.
Pressed today by CNN’s Brianna Keilar on alleged Clinton favoritism and whether a different schedule would have been preferable, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said no. “We are not putting our thumb on the scale for any candidate. In fact, I am very proud of our six-debate schedule,” said the chair, citing high viewership figures (see this DNC post for more on the ratings argument). “We have a substantive and robust discussion about how to build on the progress that we’ve made.” Early state voters, she said, have a chance to get a good look at their candidates, both through the debates and the forums/town halls.
The Erik Wemple Blog pointed out to DNC spokesman Luis Miranda that under these forums, the candidates can’t duke it out for the benefit of voters. “I don’t share your pessimism about ‘duking it out,’ we think that it is good for our Party and for the primary process that our candidates are running strong campaigns and working to highlight the differences in their approach,” responded Miranda. “For the DNC it is important that as they do highlight those differences, they’re still talking about the issues that matter to voters in the context of how to build on the incredible progress we’ve seen over the last 7 years, versus the Republican debates which have been a food fight about how to drag us back to the failed policies in place when our country was losing 800,000 jobs a month.”
It’s all about a diversity of campaign experience: “From the beginning we’ve said we want our debate schedule to provide our candidates the opportunity to engage with voters through a variety of venues,” writes Miranda in an email, “such as debates but also forums, town halls, county fair visits, and living room conversations in states like Iowa and New Hampshire where direct voter contact is so important.”
All of which is fine, but: We want our debates, not a bunch of restrictive and oppressive legalese.