Opinion

Why 2016 Democrats need more debates

Even Clinton would benefit

The Democrats have six presidential primary debates scheduled over the next several months. In any sane nation, that would be a gross excess of time and money to spend on political campaigning.

But here in the good old U.S.A., there is good reason to think they should have more, and soon. Here's why.

1. It would stop Republicans from dominating 2016 coverage. As Greg Sargent argues, the extended primary schedule is actually proving fairly valuable to Republicans. They are completely dominating the overall campaign coverage, and while a lot of the attention is negative due to half the candidates being strap-chewing lunatics, it's still building a sense of excitement. Plus, it's allowing the party to hash out its differences, in a way that might even weed out the Trump/Carson/Fiorina crowd. No small gain for a party as cracked as that one.

Democratic debates would have many of those advantages and few of the downsides. None of the candidates are a tenth as weird as Trump — meaning probably a bit less attention and coverage, but of a much better quality. With Bernie Sanders on stage, it wouldn't be a lot of boring agreement either — the many strong policy differences between him and the DNC crowd would make for a substantive debate (and perhaps even convince Clinton to adopt the popular policies that would serve her best in the general election). Sanders has even scrupulously refused to attack Clinton personally! What's not to like?

2. It would give the political press something to talk about besides the endless, pointless Clinton email story, as Jamelle Bouie notes. As is now beyond obvious, the mainstream press seriously hates Clinton, and has effectively decided that this is their best shot of ruining her career. Ron Fournier, dean of goober DC centrism, has worked himself into such a froth trying to Get Clinton on emails that he recently committed grotesque errors of fact, as Kevin Drum carefully documents.

But for that same reason, Clinton basically refuses to talk to the press outside of a handful of heavily-controlled events, which forecloses one of the few things that might distract the media from the email story. A debate, however, is another of those — a setting that's formal enough that it wouldn't turn into a Clinton witch-hunt, but would provide enough theater to get the Fournierites off her case, at least for a week or two.

3. Clinton could probably use the practice. I still remember the first presidential debate in 2012, when President Obama was roundly defeated by Mitt Romney. Obama looked like a very powerful man who was not used to being sharply challenged, and came off as simultaneously haughty and unsure of himself. Hillary Clinton is a smart, capable person, but sycophantic courtier syndrome is a real thing, and a square debate on equal footing is one of the few ways someone of Clinton's fame and standing can work against it.

It's also long since time she started actually campaigning. She's been on a mad fundraising schedule for the whole campaign, probably trying to match Jeb Bush, who is far ahead in the money race with most of the vast conservative plutocracy behind him. But Bush's atrocious performance so far in the Republican primary — he is still not even breaking double digits in the polls — is a sharp reminder that at the presidential level, more money is little guarantee of success.

The only real argument against more debates is that the election cycle is already too long. Sheesh, why do we need more debates — we've got six already? But like it or not, this is how the game is played now. The electoral death march through the nomination and general election is how the parties polish their message, hash out which policies are favored, and unite around a candidate. In a country as huge as the U.S., some of that extra time might even be a good thing, to allow for greater need for ideas to diffuse.

Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a certain Clinton supporter, has declared that there will only be six debates, period, and that any candidate who participates in non-DNC debates will get kicked out of the official ones. It smells very much like a classic Clinton hack's effort to protect her from criticism. But the only person she's hurting with that stance is the Democratic frontrunner herself.

Clinton needs to get out there and start mixing it up.

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