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 Since When Are Democrats Afraid of Debates?

Neither Hillary nor the other candidates can afford to keep ceding the limelight to the GOP.

Supporters cheer while Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. (Photo: AP/Andy Duback)

The Democratic National Committee needs to adapt to the new politics of 2016. Instead of constraining debate, as it has so far, the DNC should change course and encourage an open and freewheeling discourse. This is not just the right choice; it’s the politically practical thing to do.

Like it or not, the 2016 campaign is in full swing, and Americans are engaging with it. A record-breaking 24 million viewers tuned in to watch the August 6 GOP debate—more Americans than voted in all of the Republican primaries and caucuses of 2012 combined. It’s easy to dismiss these debates as “clown car” spectacles, considering the atrocious statements coming from Donald Trump and his apprentices. Yet since that first debate, Trump and other Republicans have seen their numbers spike in polls pairing them against anticipated Democratic opponents in 2016.

Democrats are making a serious mistake if they imagine that they’ll somehow benefit by letting the Republicans claim center stage as summer gives way to fall. And activists who want to hear serious discussions of issues too frequently neglected by Republicans—from mass incarceration to climate change to nuclear disarmament to expanding Social Security and saving the Postal Service—should be outraged by the prospect that Democrats will not have enough debates, or enough flexibility, to fully explore these vital issues.

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It’s not enough that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Jim Webb are campaigning (or that Joe Biden is pondering). The Republican candidates are debating—and far more Americans tune in to debates than attend events on the campaign trail.


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As it stands now, the Democrats have scheduled just six debates, as opposed to the dozen proposed by the GOP. Even more absurd is the fact that the first Democratic debate is set for mid-October, more than two months after the Republicans 
got started.

It’s no surprise that the loudest objections to the DNC’s approach come from candidates seeking a debate boost. Sanders says it’s “imperative that we have as many debates as possible—certainly more than six.” O’Malley complains that the current schedule is “all about trying to preordain the outcome, circle the wagons, and close off debate.” Sanders and O’Malley both object to a DNC rule that says candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates can be barred from the DNC’s 
official events.

Reckless partisans may assume that a limited schedule will benefit the current front-runner, Hillary Clinton. But that’s a bad gamble. Of course, the DNC’s proposed schedule is rough for O’Malley, whose strategy depends on multiple debates to draw attention to a campaign that is serious but still polls in the single digits. It’s also rough for Sanders, who needs strong debate performances to build on the momentum of his double-digit poll numbers and rallies that have attracted tens of thousands. But a restricted debate schedule is bad for Clinton as well: She can’t keep ceding the limelight to Republicans, who devote so much of their time and energy to attacking her on everything from e-mails to economics.

Clinton can benefit from pressure from her fellow Democrats, both when it comes to countering criticisms—some petty, some serious—and when it comes to developing the populist message that voters want to hear.

The Democratic debates don’t have to be as theatrical as the GOP’s Trump-dominated affairs. But the DNC needs to get started sooner, and it needs to support more debates in more states. That’s good for all the candidates. And it’s good for democracy—especially in an increasingly unpredictable and volatile political season, when the discourse should not be dominated by a single party.

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