The last Democratic presidential debate of 2015 was held on the Saturday night before Christmas. Viewership was roughly one-quarter that of the first Republican debate and dramatically lower than all the Republican debates.
In other words, the Democrats lost the competition for viewers — and for framing the issues and ideas for the 2016 presidential competition.
That’s bad for the Democratic Party and its candidates. It’s also bad for a body politic that requires more than the junk-food diet offered up by Donald Trump and most of his fellow contenders for the Republican presidential nod.
So former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, one of the most respected independent progressive figures within the Democratic orbit, has decided to do something about the problem.
Working with the activist group Democracy for America, Reich is circulating a petition that urges urges the Democratic National Committee and its chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to schedule additional debates.
More than 100,000 Americans have signed the petition — which echoes calls from former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for more debates — and the number is rising rapidly.
Reich is making an important point as a prominent progressive who served in former President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet and who has emerged as a hero of activists aligned with what is frequently referred to as “the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party.”
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“The Democratic National Committee has scheduled fewer than half the debates the Republicans have scheduled, and also put them on weekends when few people are likely to watch (the next one will be on a Sunday during the NFL playoffs, during the three-day MLK Jr. birthday weekend). Again by contrast, the Republicans have made sure their debates are in prime time,” he explains. “As a result, Republicans are getting lots of free TV time for their right-wing ideas and brainless policies, while Democrats get little time for ideas and policies that should be front and center. Republican debates are making the headlines, while Democratic debates are buried. Republican lies and misinformation shape the public’s understanding of what’s at stake in the 2016 election, while real issues and the important facts are sidelined.”
The fight for more debates ought not to be limited to the Democratic primary process.
Activists should also be fighting for more debates once the parties have nominated their candidates for president.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, a joint project of Democratic and Republican party insiders, currently has control of the fall presidential debates — along with the television networks. The commission has a history of narrowing the number of debates, limiting the number of candidates who can participate, and selecting moderators and panelists who constrain rather than expand the range of debate.
Now is the time to start fighting to break the stranglehold of the commission and open up the fall debates. Some groups are already working in this direction. There’s even a change.org petition that calls for the commission to “Include All Qualified Candidates in 2016 Presidential Debates.”
Debates are an essential feature of democracy, and we should all resolve to fight for more of them in 2016.