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Opinion How Democrats got bogged down in a messy dispute over debates

The Democratic Party is embroiled in an increasingly loud argument over the schedule of presidential debates, one that flared up in New Hampshire over the weekend when DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz got heckled by audience members. Senior Dems such as Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean have criticized the DNC. Hillary Clinton’s rivals have charged that the DNC has only scheduled six debates to deny them airtime and protect front-runner Clinton, who has subsequently said she’s open to more debates but won’t say whether she actively wants more of them.

But to understand what’s really happening here, it’s necessary to look in a more nuanced way at how we got to this point. Here’s my best effort to explain and reconstruct how this happened.

Last spring, when negotiations between the DNC and the Dem campaigns over the debate schedule got underway in earnest, the Clinton camp’s preference was to have only four debates, one in each of the early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, according to a senior Democrat with knowledge of those conversations.

Asked to comment on this version of events, DNC spokesperson Holly Schulman didn’t immediately dispute it, but declined comment. A Clinton spokesperson didn’t immediately return an email. (This version comports with Politico’s reporting that the Clinton camp prefers to keep the number of debates low.)

By contrast, Martin O’Malley’s campaign wanted many more debates. DNC officials suggested to the Clinton campaign that more than four would be necessary, the senior Dem continues. The Clinton camp showed flexibility at that point, but was uncomfortable with the idea of too many debates, and ultimately agreed to six, the senior Dem says. The tone of these discussions was more along the lines of collective brainstorming, and less like aggressive haggling, this official says.

Martin O'Malley blasted the Democratic Party for what he called a "rigged" debate process in the presidential nominating contest. (Video: C-SPAN)

In early May, the DNC announced six debates. The DNC has argued that this is consistent with precedent in 2004 and 2008.

Here an important nuance needs to be noted. At that point, the DNC had only announced the amount of debates, and not their schedule. The dates of the debates were announced in August. It was at that point that outrage really began to build, because the dates themselves created a situation that began to be seen as problematic. (Those dates are October 13, November 14th, December 19th, January 17th, and two in February or March that are not nailed down yet.)

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The problem is that of the four debates that are actually scheduled, three come on weekends (as opposed to during weeknight prime time), one of them on the weekend between the end of Hanukkah and Christmas. The two remaining (as yet unscheduled) debates are in February or March, one on Univision and the other on PBS. Between those two and the one in January, there will be only three Dem debates in 2016, during the period in which Democrats will be voting in dozens of contests — from the early contests through the big state primaries in early and mid March, a period that could very well settle the outcome. By contrast, Republicans have six debates scheduled throughout that period, many on major networks.

As it is, the GOP debates are drawing very big audiences. It’s true that this is due to the Trump carnival — making this in some ways a negative for the GOP. But the positive side for the GOP is that enormous numbers of voters are seeing the other GOP candidates in strong moments, which is good both for GOP organizing in the primaries and for giving them and their ideas exposure beyond the GOP primary audience. Add to this the imbalance in the number of debates in this 2016 window, when voters are seriously tuning in, and Dems risk ceding the airwaves and squandering a chance to build excitement and engage more voters, some party officials have argued.

“Left unchecked, the superior RNC schedule could easily reach 50 to 100 million more eyeballs than the current Democratic schedule — meaning tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of lost opportunities to persuade, engage and excite the audiences all Democrats will need to win in 2016,” argues Dem strategist Simon Rosenberg.

Fixing this problem could involve rejiggering the schedule of Dem debates so more take place in that critical window, or adding a few more in that window, or a combination of the two.

It’s not clear how this will shake out. The DNC appears to be digging in behind its schedule. Clinton won’t clarify whether she actively wants more debates, and her campaign very well may not want that at all, given the details of the tick-tock I’ve laid out above. Even if the DNC’s original decision to set six debates is somewhat defensible, given how this all unfolded, things seem to be spiraling out of the committee’s control, now that we have the schedule itself and now that we’re seeing huge audiences tuning in to the GOP debates.

The criticism may escalate, putting the DNC — and Clinton — in an increasingly difficult position. The Clinton camp, by claiming openness to more debates, has given the DNC a way out. But it’s unclear whether the committee will take it.


UPDATE: It’s worth noting that while the six DNC-sanctioned debates this time is in keeping with precedent, in 2008 there were far more debates that were not sanctioned by the DNC. This time, the DNC has also instituted an “exclusivity” clause: If a candidate participates in a non-DNC-sanctioned debate, he or she is theoretically forbidden from participating in DNC-sanctioned ones, making it a lot less likely that non-sanctioned ones will take place.