Democrats woke up Thursday to find that the debate format they have agreed to is an unmitigated disaster designed to hype ratings (hence baiting the candidates to attack one another) but not to educate voters or really test candidates’ fitness for office.
Sure, getting rid of most of the field in September by raising the qualifications to 2 percent support in designated polls and 130,000 unique donors will help. If the threshold went up a percentage point each month, we might finally get to a manageable field in which candidates have more than one minute to spit out an answer and 30 seconds to rebut. However, this won’t solve all the problems with the current system.
Ideally, you would have candidates who have enough self-control not to aim fire at one another, and who don’t think that Twitter is reality or that scoring a micro-point on an obscure policy item impresses voters. The platform that the Democratic National Committee has devised is counterproductive and largely unfixable. Democrats should have the nerve (before September if they really had the guts) to start over. (If candidates don’t like it, they can refuse to show up.)
First, the top five or so candidates need to be on the stage at the same time. The kiddie table used by Republicans in 2016 was an excellent idea, it turns out. The public need not be forced to sit through Bashar al-Assad apologist Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-Hawaii) critique of, well, of anything.
Second, questions should come from voters (sifted only for duplication and coherence by moderators) or from candidates themselves. Voters actually ask better questions these days (e.g., What’s your education plan?) than do most members of the media (e.g., How will you win Michigan? Can you tell us why you’re not a socialist?). With fewer participants, answers can be longer. Right now candidates are arguing about tiny differences without explaining what their own positions are. This renders the debate unwatchable for all but policy junkies.
Third, foreign policy has been inexcusably ignored. Either carve out 50 percent of each debate for foreign policy or devote an entire debate or two to national security and international affairs. It’s not acceptable to have candidates go through debate after debate without explaining what they would do to repair strained NATO ties, how they would counter China’s theft of intellectual property, how we “end” wars without creating new havens for terrorists, whether our existing counterterrorism approach (putting vast numbers of troops on the ground to fight asymmetric wars) even makes sense or any other serious issue.
Fourth, a party that is heavily dependent on female voters cannot have debates that ignore a raft of issues women in particular care about. Child care, abortion, education, equal pay and parental leave are critical topics that have been largely ignored. If the DNC won’t do it, women’s groups should hold a debate on this topic and dare the DNC to penalize candidates for showing up.
Fifth, the current debate format oddly allows candidates to avoid talking about their biography and qualifications. What has Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) accomplished in the Senate that suggests he can achieve his policy agenda? What bipartisan initiatives have these people taken on, what natural or man-made disaster have they navigated, what gives us confidence they can pick excellent advisers and what evidence do we have that they are self-reflective enough to admit error and change course? You would never hire a mid-level manager without asking such questions. Perhaps an entire debate or town hall about themselves, not their laundry list of proposals, is in order.
The candidates themselves need to take charge as soon as possible and restructure these events. If they don’t, they will bludgeon one another and bore to death an ever-diminishing audience.