This post has been updated with news that the DNC has now sanctioned four additional debates -- including Thursday's and a March 6 debate in Flint, Mich.
Donald Trump skipped a debate. Hillary Clinton wants more debates. Totally different, right?
Well, not really. While their goals have not been the same, both have tried to throw their front-running weight around to force changes to debate protocols. The real difference is in their success rates.
Trump made a public spectacle of pressuring Fox News Channel to ditch Megyn Kelly as a moderator of the final debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses, in which he finished second. Fox kept Kelly, however, and let the Republican presidential front-runner walk. Before that, Trump twice suggested that he might withdraw from CNN debates if he didn’t receive appearance fees (for charity, naturally); he showed up both times without compensation.
In each case, Trump overestimated his leverage. He thought the cable networks would be so desperate to keep him — and his ratings — that they would bow to his wishes. He was wrong.
Clinton, meanwhile, signed on last week to an additional debate to be staged by MSNBC and the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., this Thursday — even after the Democratic National Committee insisted it would not sanction such an event.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley (before he dropped out on caucus night) also agreed to participate, but that was hardly a surprise. They had been pushing for more debates for a while — and getting nowhere. Only when the former secretary of state wanted to expand the schedule did another event materialize.
Adding a debate isn’t quite as simple as getting the candidates on board, however. DNC approval is important because the committee has the power to disqualify from its “official” events any candidate who participates in extras. In theory (at least), Clinton was risking her spot in the two debates left on the original Democratic calendar.
Yet she seemed to know there was no way the DNC — or its media partners (including The Washington Post) — would kick her out. By the day of the Iowa caucuses, it appeared that the DNC would get behind the additional New Hampshire debate and possibly three more. And on Wednesday afternoon, party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz confirmed in a statement that the committee would indeed sanction four additional debates.
Here's the statement:
Having our candidates in agreement on their desire to add debates to our sanctioned schedule, the DNC has sanctioned an MSNBC debate on February 4th at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
The candidates have also agreed to participate in three newly scheduled DNC sanctioned debates to be held in addition to the February 11th PBS News Hour, and March 9th Univision debates already planned. The first of these new debates is confirmed to take place in Flint, Michigan on March 6th, with the remaining two taking place in April and May with times and locations to be determined. We will continue to work closely with both campaigns as we finalize the remaining details.
It’s pretty clear why Clinton is suddenly eager to debate more often. When she had a massive lead in national polls, a limited schedule (only six debates, compared to 12 on the GOP side) seemed to serve her interests; fewer debates meant fewer chances for her challengers to disrupt the status quo. Now that she finds herself trying to fend off a surprisingly formidable Sanders, who nearly beat her on Monday in Iowa, Clinton is the one looking for new opportunities to shift the momentum. That, and it's a format that favors her more so than Sanders.
But why did Clinton get her way in debate negotiations, while Trump failed? For one thing, she didn’t act alone. If every candidate agrees to an extra event, can the DNC penalize all of them?
And for another, even if she had acted alone, Clinton would have enjoyed more leverage than Trump. She represented one-third (now one-half) of the Democratic field; DQing her from the official debates would be totally impractical. Trump, on the other hand, was one of a dozen Republican candidates who qualified for the Fox News debate that he chose to boycott. He’s the biggest TV draw, for sure, but the field was still so big that it had to be split into upper and lower tiers. The show could go on without him.
In a way, it appears that Clinton has out-Trumped Trump. He’s supposed to be the best deal-maker in the presidential race. But at the debate negotiating table, he overplayed his hand, while Clinton dealt from a position of strength.