Debates and American Democracy

The Republicans

Like many of you, I watched the Republican debate on Wednesday feeling somewhere between very entertained and fucking terrified that these people actually think they’re capable of running the country. By most press standards, Carly Fiorina won the debate. She came across as highly qualified, passionate, and relatively intelligent. Her two strongest moments, in my opinion, both had to do with her status as the only female contender in the Republican race: her nasty burn of Donald Trump over what his “face” comments say about his persona, and her calling the move to put a woman on the $10 bill an empty gesture that accomplishes little in the long run. However, she had some rather interesting things to say across the whole three hours of the debate, notably presenting an in-depth plan on how she would escalate tensions with Russia to Cold War levels, defending her abysmal tenure as CEO of HP, when she lost the company billions of dollars all while getting much richer herself, and taking the oh-so-brave stance of criticizing Planned Parenthood for those videos that you’ve been hearing about. Quick word on those videos: they’re mostly faked. Anti-abortion activists posed as medical professionals to goad Planned Parenthood staff into saying what they considered objectionable things, selectively edited the results, and grossly misrepresented the association’s use of fetal tissue (which is often donated to research facilities for very important research into the healing properties of stem cells. The facilities cover the cost for storing and transporting such tissue, which the videos present as some ludicrous Cash4BabyParts exchange), all in the hopes that they would get exactly the type of response they’ve gotten. Not a single person on the Republican stage said anything about the veracity of those videos, choosing instead to represent them as the symptoms of a morally sick nation that has lost the way of God’s divine light. Seriously.

As far as debate topics go, the issues considered most important by voters for this election are some combination of the economy, health care, and their dissatisfaction with the culture of Washington. Besides some vague plans to “repeal and replace” Obamacare and to promote growth by cutting taxes or instating a flat tax, there wasn’t a whole lot of substance in their discussion. Trump, of all people, made vague mentions of raising taxes on hedge fund managers, to a frosty reception. Instead of talking about these issues, the candidates focused almost the entirety of their time to issues that they want to talk about, notably terrorism, immigration reform, and just how frequently they fellate the ghost of Ronald Reagan, who came a close second after Fiorina in terms of winning the debate. Jeb Bush, the presumed eventual nominee who has yet to show any real desire to be anything more than the butt of Donald Trump’s jokes, had a pretty poor performance. While he’s being talked about as another one of the winners, it’s important to note that his biggest applause line of the night came after defending his brother’s foreign policy record, you know, including Iraq. Combine that with the frequent attribution of the poor state of the economy and to President Obama despite his taking office sometime after the start of the 2008 recession, and everyone’s (save Rand Paul’s) burning desire to get involved with yet another war in the Middle East, and it seems like elephants just might forget after all.

The Democrats

In the 2008 primary cycle, Democrats held 19 debates on the way to Obama’s nomination. This time around, the DNC has scheduled only 6. While that would be fine by itself, as candidates normally participate in debates held outside the fold of those organized by the DNC, there’s an added bonus clause for this edition: candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates will be banned from the official ones. Meaning that if Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, the two loudest critics of this schedule, get together for an unsanctioned debate organized by some external group, they will be kicked off of the stage at the 6 official debates, a scenario many at the DNC and within the Clinton camp would be perfectly ok with. The way these debates are scheduled benefits only Hillary Clinton, likely by design, at the detriment of other candidates, serious political discussion, and democratic values.

Hillary has everything to gain from holding as few debates as possible. She initially lobbied the DNC to have fewer than 6 debates, though has, in somewhat typical fashion, reversed course since then, albeit not with great enthusiasm. As the front-runner and presumed winner of the primaries, the less screen time she has to share with other candidates, the better. The debates, after all, present all candidates on relatively equal footing and allow lesser-known candidates to present their ideas to the viewing public. They also force the candidates to come up with definitive answer to policy questions, unlike grandstanding at a solo campaign event (though the recent Republican debate does seriously throw the legitimacy of that into question). The DNC doesn’t seem to want that. The chair of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has repeatedly stated that she does not plan on changing anything about the debate schedule, while her underlings have expressed support for such a change, only to afterwards say that the chair alone can alter these rules. Now here’s a fun fact:

In 2007-08, Debbie Wasserman Schultz was national campaign co-chair for a certain Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Now, I don’t want to say that there’s any sort of collusion going on here, as that would be speculative and defamatory. However, I can’t be alone in thinking that this is a little fishy. The chair of the DNC just so happens to schedule debates in a totally ludicrous way that happens to benefit the campaign of a woman she actively campaigned for 8 years ago? Come on. And now, with recent trends showing that fewer and fewer Americans want this primary to be an uncompetitive Clinton coronation, the DNC’s schedule flies even more in the face of all reason. It, to a large extent, rigs the primary, weakens the party’s stance by limiting national exposure, and eats at those fundamentally democratic (capital D optional) values of civil engagement, voter participation, and informed citizenship.

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