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Opinion The DNC’s latest debate qualifications go too far

Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, Oct. 15. (John Minchillo/AP)

The Associated Press reports on the announced qualifications for the Democratic presidential debate:

To make the debate stage in Los Angeles, party officials announced Friday that candidates must have at least 200,000 unique donors and a minimum of 800 unique donors per state in at least 20 states.
Candidates must also mark 4% in at least four national or early state polls, or achieve 6% in two single-state polls in the early states. DNC officials have said that this separate pathway may provide an avenue for hopefuls who may not be registering as highly in national surveys as in the key early-voting states.

Former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have already qualified under this standard, but it is quite possible that a serious candidate such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has been moving up in the polls and has a major ground operation in Iowa, might not make that debate.

I certainly have urged the DNC steadily to increase the qualifications so as to get all the top contenders on the debate stage together, in numbers manageable to have a coherent debate. The November debate in Georgia presently has nine participants, which serves the purpose of thinning the herd without excluding viable candidates.

What could be achieved by taking the number down to five or if a Klobuchar or a Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has a realistic chance to do well in early states, is excluded? The job of the DNC, it strikes me, is not to pick the top three or four finishers in the Iowa caucuses, it is to get to a reasonable number so that Iowa, and then New Hampshire, voters can make the first cut.

Moreover, if the aim is to eliminate gimmicky candidates such as Andrew Yang or Tom Steyer, simply raising the threshold to 4 percent and increasing the number of donors to 200,000 really will not accomplish that goal. Steyer has enough money to spend on an ad blitz, raising his name identity and scooping up donors. There is no magic number one can divine that would ensure an obviously serious candidate such as Klobuchar gets in and Steyer is kept out. The solution is not to reward the millionaire candidate who can spend his way into contention and exclude a modestly funded candidate who has been a major factor in debates, has been rising in the polls and has a huge ground game.

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Perhaps everything will sort itself out between now and December’s debate in Los Angeles. If Klobuchar continues to impress on the debate stage and raises money as she has since the last debate (more than $2 million), she might sail past the new threshold. If not, however, she and Iowa’s Democratic voters have every reason to complain that the DNC is big-footing the caucus-goers.

And while we are considering the composition of the debate, it might be worthwhile to address the format of December’s debate. If the DNC does whittle down the participants to five or six, perhaps it is time to have a conversation rather than another podium set up where zingers and sound bites are more important than a well-constructed argument. Let’s hear the candidates talk for more than a minute about a subject as complex as the Middle East or repairing our democratic institutions.

If a candidate does not have enough substance to fill up two or even three (!) minutes, voters should consider whether that candidate is really up to the task of cleaning up the mess the current Oval Office occupant will leave behind. A candidate should not be able to sneak by with a slogan (Troops out of the Middle East! Health care is a right!) without explaining what that entails and how the candidate will achieve his or her stated goals.

From my vantage point, the DNC should not precipitously cut the lineup. It should, however, think seriously about adjusting the format so that those who do get on the stage need to show more substance and not be allowed to escape the details and complications involved in governing.

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