One of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates calls its debate process “rigged.” One rising star within the party now suggests she was “relinquishing my freedom of speech” when she joined the national party’s committee.
The internal debate over the Democratic presidential debates has gotten nasty, and it comes as the party’s candidates prepare to take the stage for the first contest in the 2016 primary cycle.
On Sunday, The New York Times reported that US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), the vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, had been disinvited from the debate Tuesday in Las Vegas.
Gabbard told The Times that DNC Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) informed her that Gabbard was not encouraged to attend if she continued to advocate for more presidential debates, which the DNC has resisted.
The public tension over Gabbard’s invite to the debate is the latest in an internecine Democratic squabble over what appears to be a fairly simple problem: the number of presidential debates.
Proponents for more debates, like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have suggested the committee, which is supposed to abstain from taking sides in the primary, is attempting to tilt the scales against lesser-known candidates by capping the number of debates at six.
That’s the same number of DNC-sanctioned debates held in 2004 and 2008. But in 2008, for example, then-US Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ended up debating more than two dozen times, most of which came at events unsanctioned by the committee.
But this time, candidates had to agree to an “exclusivity clause” to appear in the committee-approved debates.
O’Malley, lagging in the polls, has forcefully pushed for more debates. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), the upstart insurgent, has also called for additional contests. Even Clinton, the front-runner, has suggested an openness to adding debates.
But so far, the DNC has rebuffed attempts to increase the number. Wasserman Schultz has been defiant, arguing some in the party would be unhappy if she suddenly reversed course.
“My staff and I made this decision and we are not going to change it. No matter what we decided, there would be individuals who would be unhappy,” Wasserman Schultz said earlier this year. “I knew there were people who would be unhappy, and I’m not going to change the schedule.”
- REUTERS/Jim Young
O’Malley’s campaign hasn’t been subtle about its suggestion that the official party infrastructure is trying to draw attention away from the debates. In a memorable speech in front of Wasserman Schultz in August, O’Malley charged that the debate schedule had been “rigged” to aid Clinton.
Consider the first four scheduled Democratic debates. The first, on Tuesday, is set to take place during the Major League Baseball playoffs. The next, November 14, comes on a Saturday in the middle of the college-football season. One in January comes on an NFL playoff Sunday. And in December, Democrats are scheduled to debate Saturday, December 19, the busiest shopping day of the year.
“The governor has been really outspoken about the fact that there is an unprecedented and historically limited number of debates. And the debates that we are having are during major sports playoffs or on Saturdays or during the holidays,” Haley Morris, the O’Malley campaign’s national press secretary, told Business Insider Monday. “It almost seems as if the DNC doesn’t want the country to tune in and hear from all the Democratic candidates.”
Morris said the party is letting the Republican Party, which has held two high-profile debates already, dominate the presidential conversation by not allowing more debates.
“Democrats as a whole have ceded the national conversation to Republicans. You have 22 [million] or 24 million people tuning in to Donald Trump and a lot of other candidates who sound like Donald Trump,” she said.
Publicly, however, the DNC has denied that it disinvited Gabbard and has sought to play down the tension between party members.
“The focus of the debate in Nevada as well as the other debates and forums in the coming weeks should be on the candidates who will take the stage, and their vision to move America forward. All that was asked of Ms. Gabbard’s staff was to prioritize our candidates and this important opportunity they have to introduce themselves to the American people,” Holly Shulman, the committee’s national press secretary, said in a statement.
And privately, those close to the committee seem relatively unconcerned about grumbling over debate procedure. Some point out that any lingering drama over the debates will likely abate once the contests themselves start Tuesday, as candidates will have plenty of time for break-out moments.
Candidates like O’Malley, who has failed to rise above single-digits in early polls and who often rely heavily on the debates to gain national exposure.
The former governor’s team says that though he doesn’t have the cash or name-recognition of Clinton, he’s extremely policy savvy and accomplished as a governor. The campaign says this will ultimately play to O’Malley’s advantage – CNN anchor Anderson Cooper has said policy will take precedent on the debate stage over the personal squabbles that have flared up repeatedly during the Republican debates.
“This is why the governor has been so excited and so eager to have debates. He has been hailed by advocates and experts and progressives for really setting the standards on these issue areas,” Morris said Monday, listing off O’Malley’s record on issues like gun control and environmental protection.