DNC still can't justify its limits on presidential candidate debates (updated)

Four Iowa Democratic county chairs made cogent arguments today for expanding the number of presidential debates before caucuses and primaries begin. In an accompanying statement, 27 local Democratic leaders in Iowa joined the call for more debates, starting sooner this year.

As usual, the Democratic National Committee failed to offer a compelling defense for their unprecedented and ridiculous policy limiting candidates to six officially sanctioned debates, starting in mid-October.  

The new advocacy organization #AllowDebate arranged for local Iowa Democratic leaders and activists to speak to reporters today. #AllowDebate describes itself as a “grassroots group of Democrats and Independents pushing for an end to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s unprecedented and undemocratic exclusion rule that prevents Democratic candidates from debating the issues facing the country more than the six times she has designated.” The group notes on its website,

In the 2008 primary, Democratic candidates participated in 26 debates, including 10 by September 9, 2007.  

In the 2016 primary, DNC Chair Wasserman Schultz has added an unprecedented new restriction, under which candidates are forbidden from participating in any debates beyond the six sanctioned by the DNC, which do not begin until October 13th.

The first Democratic debate occurs on October 13th, four days after the deadline for voters in New York state to switch to the Democratic party and vote in the primary.

None of the Democratic presidential candidates are opposed to adding more debates to the 2016 primary process.

Jason Noble reported for the Des Moines Register on today’s conference call:

“Local Democrats here want to see our candidates address the issues that are likely to confront the next president not just in soundbites or press releases or other things that they generate, but in a thorough, rigorous debate format,” said Kurt Meyer, the Democratic Party chairman for Mitchell County and the Tri-County Democrats organization in northeast Iowa. “These debates would give voters a chance to size up the candidates, and I think more debates will lead to more informed and engaged voters.” […]

Of the four activists who participated in the conference call on Wednesday, one – Larry Hogden of Cedar County – is supporting [Martin] O’Malley while the others said they were undecided. […]

“Even if it’s not intentional, it would certainly appear that the DNC is showing favoritism to Hillary by not scheduling a lot of debates,” Hogden said. “What they’re doing is hurting the Democratic Party in the process. They’re more worried about protecting somebody than they are building up party overall.”

Hogden added, “Hillary has nothing to lose by debating and I think the Democratic Party has much to gain. If we want to be in a position to win the 2016 election, not matter who our candidate is, we need to do everything we can to promote the Democratic Party and its ideals.”

O’Malley has been the most vocal advocate of more Democratic debates, slamming what he calls a “rigged process” and a schedule under which “the New Hampshire debate is cynically wedged into the high point of the holiday shopping season so as few people watch it as possible.” Bernie Sanders has also taken the DNC to task over the debate limits.

Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson covered comments from the other two county party leaders.

Jasper County Democratic Party chairman Taylor Van De Krol said during a conference call arranged by #AllowDebate that a debate performance can change minds.

“I think that we need to have more debates,” Van De Krol said, “and that we need to have more real, raw discussion.”

Van De Krol hasn’t endorsed a candidate yet, but he plans to do so. […]

Marcia Fulton, the chair of Union County Democrats, hasn’t picked a candidate yet, but she’s also joining the call for more debates.

“I actually think that Secretary Clinton would benefit from more debates…but she may be being protected by the DNC,” Fulton said.

I agree entirely that more debates would likely help Clinton, not hurt her. The front-runner herself is up for the challenge.

“I debated a lot in 2008 and I would certainly be there with lots of enthusiasm and energy if (the DNC) decide to add more debates,” Clinton said during a press conference in Portsmouth [New Hampshire on September 5]. “And I think that’s the message a lot of people are sending their way.”

Noble relayed the party’s official answer to critics:

In response, DNC spokesman TJ Helmstetter released a statement to The Des Moines Register on Wednesday reiterating the committee’s support for a six-debate schedule.

“We believe that six debates will give plenty of opportunity for the candidates to be seen side-by-side,” Helmstetter said. “I’m sure there will be lots of other forums for the candidates to make their case to voters, and that the candidates will make the most out of every opportunity.”

That rang a bell. I realized why when I went back to Jennifer Epstein’s August 6 report for Bloomberg News:

Responding to Thursday’s uproar, the DNC’s [Holly] Shulman said the party is “thrilled the candidates are so eager to participate in our debates.”

“We believe that six debates will give plenty of opportunity for the candidates to be seen side-by-side,” she added. “I’m sure there will be lots of other forums for the candidates to make their case to voters, and that they will make the most out of every opportunity.”

So, no answer to any points raised by county leaders who spend countless unpaid hours in the trenches, trying to mobilize support for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

O’Malley is right: “While the Republicans put their backwards ideas forward before an audience of more than 20 million Americans. We put our forward-thinking ideas on the backburner…and try to hide them from the airwaves.”

Forums and press conferences don’t give undecided voters the same kind of information as an unscripted debate. For no good reason, the DNC doesn’t want voters to be able to vet the candidates in a “thorough, rigorous debate format.” That will be on my mind as I screen out the DNC’s fundraising phone calls and put their direct mail straight into the recycling bin.

From the #AllowDebate website:

27 Iowa Democratic County Chairs and Activists who want the DNC to allow more debates before the Iowa Caucuses and to end the exclusion rule:

District 1

Kurt Meyer, Chair, Mitchell County Democrats, & Chair, Tri-County Democrats (Worth, Mitchell & Howard Counties)

Rachel Bly, Co-Chair, Poweshiek County Democrats

Pat Brockett

Charlene Doyle, Co-Chair, Poweshiek County Democrats

Laura Hubka

Matt Tapscott, Chair, Winnieshek County Democrats

District 2

Larry Hodgden, Chair, Cedar County Democrats

Joe Judge, Chair, Monroe County Democrats

Jean Pardee

Don Paulson, Chair, Muscatine County Democrats

Bob Thomas

Taylor Van De Krol, Chair, Jasper County Democrats

Lorraine Williams, Chair, Washington County Democrats

District 3

Art Behn, Chair, Dallas County Democrats

Robert Bell, Chair, Madison County Democrats

Jason Frerichs, Chair, Montgomery County Democrats

Jennifer Herrington

Marcia Fulton, Chair, Union County Democrats

District 4

Margaret Blaskovich, Chair, Calhoun County Democrats

John Colombo, Chair, Franklin County Democrats

Julie Geopfert, Chair, Webster County Democrats

Brian Gerjets, Co-Chair, Cherokee County Democrats

Carol Gordon

Raymond Keninger

Bruce Perry

Denny Perry, Chair, Dickinson County Democrats

Sue Seedroff-Keninger

UPDATE: Jennifer Epstein of Bloomberg News covered DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s latest comments on September 10.

“We’re having six debates-period,” the Florida congresswoman said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington, repeating that pledge several times over the course of an hour.

“We’re not changing the process. We’re having six debates,” she added. “We’re having six debates and the candidates will be uninvited from any subsequent debates if they accept an invitation to a debate outside the six DNC-sanctioned debates.”  […]

“The purpose of it is so we can make sure that the Democratic Party’s debate process doesn’t get out of control,” she said, pointing to the 2008 Democratic primary, which included 26 debates, a number that “I don’t think … was helpful.”

SECOND UPDATE: Evan McMorris-Santoro reported for Buzzfeed on September 10,

On Wednesday, two vice chairs at the DNC, former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, took to Facebook to express their disappointment at the DNC debate rules, which punish candidates who participate in non-sanctioned debates by denying them a space at the party debates.

The rules and the six-debate calendar “limits the ability of the American people to benefit from a strong, transparent, vigorous debate between our Presidential candidates, as they make the important decision of who will be our Democratic Presidential nominee,” the pair wrote.

In an email conversation Thursday, Rybak criticized the process that led to the debate calendar. Wasserman Schultz made the decision on her own, he said, and didn’t include the vice chairs in the decision-making process.

“The chair made the decision. Vice chairs were not involved,” Rybak told BuzzFeed News. Once Wasserman Schultz came up with the calendar, “We had a healthy discussion and I disagreed with decision,” Rybak said.

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