The Presidential Primary Debate Forum Should Be Scrapped

I agree with Paul Waldman that the Democratic presidential debates are going to be awful. I don’t fault the Democratic National Committee for that. They are doing their best to accommodate an unprecedented number of candidates. But there is no way to have a meaningful debate with twenty participants, and it doesn’t help all that much to split the field into two debates with ten candidates in each.

I don’t blame the quality of the politicians either. As Waldman points out, given the two-hour format for the debates and the likely dead time involved in advertisements, panel questions, and random chatter, each candidate will probably have no more than nine minutes to make their case. That’s enough to get a good moment for YouTube or the nightly cable shows, but not enough to do anything substantive.

It’s too late to fix this problem in this election cycle, although they could have longer debates later in the process. What should probably become the norm is that traditional debates should be held only after a winnowing of the candidates down to a more manageable number.  Ideally, no more than three candidates should be on the stage at any time, and they should remain focused on certain areas of interest. A debate can be dedicated to global issues like foreign policy and climate change, or to some pressing domestic issue like immigration, the opioid crisis, health care, retirement security, crime and policing, reproductive rights, etc.

In the early stages of a campaign, the candidates should be on their own to participate or not in debates, which can be sponsored by political, citizen, or academic groups, or they can be organized by candidates banding together to create their own forums for discussion and debate.

If people want to watch these debates, they’ll be able to find them whether or not they’re broadcast on the television networks or cable news channels.

The way things are set up now, the debates just invite the candidates to devote all their efforts to creating a moment that will go viral rather than engaging in any kind of reasoned discourse. It’s not a good way for us to judge how they’ll perform as a president, and it’s scarcely better for judging how they’d do in a one-in-one campaign against Donald Trump.

It’s not a particularly fair way of culling the candidates either, and I don’t see much upside to having these debates at all.

Of course, I will watch them and I will analyze them not by the merits of what the candidates have to say but by how successful they have been in assuring that they’ll get a lot of play on social media and the next day’s cable news segments. That’s really the only way to gauge whether the the participants have a good or bad debate.

I don’t want to have to do that kind of analysis and I don’t think the American people should be forced to make their choices based on what amounts to performative art.

I hope in the future, the Democratic Party will simply hold off on sanctioning official debates that include more than four or five candidates until at least the eve of the first caucuses and primaries.

Support the Washington Monthly and get a FREE subscription

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com