Democrats — and, specifically, Hillary Clinton — have a growing debate problem on their hands.
At the New Hampshire Democratic party convention — usually a rah-rah event — over the weekend, national party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) was repeatedly interrupted during her prepared remarks by chants of “we want debates.”
Retorted Wasserman Schultz: “What’s more important, drawing a contrast with Republicans or arguing about debates?”
The answer to her (rhetorical) question was not immediately clear in the room. The New Hampshire uprising is only the latest sign of discontent — being fomented by long-shot Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley — about the party’s announced schedule, which features a total of six debates beginning next month.
As 538’s Harry Enten has pointed out, if Wasserman Schultz does stick to the six debates, it would be the fewest the party has held in a year when there wasn’t a Democratic president seeking a second term since 1980. It would also match the fewest debates Republicans have held over that same time period.
O’Malley, who also spoke to the New Hampshire gathering on Saturday, has hit hard at the idea that the party bigwigs are trying to shelter Clinton and, in so doing, robbing Democrats of a real choice.
“It’s bad for us as a Democratic Party to act in undemocratic ways and try to limit debates in some sort of misguided effort to prop up or circle the wagon around this year’s inevitable front-runner,” O’Malley told a local TV station over the weekend, adding that Wasserman Schultz was committing “party malpractice.”
O’Malley and others who support his cause make a simple argument: Republicans have had two debates already this election season — and each of them drew more than 22 million viewers, setting ratings records for both the Fox News Channel and CNN.
Given that level of interest and Clinton’s struggles in dealing with her decision to conduct all official State Department business on a private e-mail server — and the resultant poll swoon she has experienced — why not open up the process?
That argument has found some fertile ground within a party that is visibly nervous about Clinton’s prospects and waiting to see whether Vice President Biden decides to enter the contest.
“The problem for Clinton is she looks once again like she is hiding, which combined with the coverage of the e-mails is an unhealthy dynamic,” acknowledged one senior-level Democrat who broadly praised the DNC for limiting debate in an effort “to avoid the endless forums that plagued the campaigns in 2008.”
In that race, there were 25 — yes TWENTY-FIVE — Democratic debates as networks fell all over themselves to scoop up the ratings bonanza afforded by the fight between Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama.
Virtually every one in the party believed that was way too many. And so, Wasserman Schultz had every reason to believe that her proposal of just six debates — including one in New Hampshire just days before Christmas — would be generally noncontroversial.
“These six debates will . . . give caucus-goers and primary voters ample opportunity to hear from our candidates about their vision for our country’s future,” she said at the time.
Famous last words. Ever since then, the party has been roiled by questions of whether six is enough and whether the relatively small number of debates is the latest attempt to insulate Clinton from intra-party criticism and strengthen (or preserve) her chances in a general election.
Clinton, for her part, said last week that she wants to ensure “Democratic voters first and general voters to follow see exactly what we stand for and what our positions are.” She did not, however, push Wasserman Schultz to add debates to the schedule.
Clinton’s unwillingness to go on record in support of more debates suggests that she and her team still believe this is a niche issue that isn’t hurting her with voters not already aligned with O’Malley.
Chris Cooper, a Democratic direct-mail consultant, agreed. “Nobody cares,” he said. “This is silly season [and the] press needs to manufacture a controversy where there is none.”
Maybe. But, the uproar over the weekend in New Hampshire suggests that the calls for expanding the debate schedule are getting louder, not softer. If the drumbeat keeps up, pressure will ramp up on Wasserman Schultz — and Clinton — to cave to the debate demands.
We’re not there yet. But, we’re a lot closer to it today than we were a month ago.