Thursday, August 29, 2019

Debate Deadline Day

Yesterday was the final day for candidates to qualify for the September 12 Democratic presidential candidate debate to be held in Houston, TX. Conveniently, it appears 10 have qualified – convenient because that is the maximum number that can debate at the same time according to the rules of the Democratic National Committee and the debate’s sponsor ABC. The lucky 10 are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Juli├ín Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang.

Obviously, not everyone is pleased with this outcome - notably those who didn't manage to make the final cut. Of course, if they are able to persevere, they still have a chance to make it into October's debate, since the requirements will be the same (which means that everyone who has qualified for September has already qualified for October, and others may yet join them).

The whole thing is a bit of a mess, all of which makes me even more nostalgic for the good old days when people waited until election year itself to announce their candidacies. (John F. Kennedy, for example, announced his candidacy on January 2, 1960). Of course, for that to work we would have to be willing to wait for the voters (or at least that privileged minority of voters who participate in the early primaries and caucuses) to register their preferences. Instead, we want to start the winnowing process way before any actual votes are cast. Hence, our dubious reliance on polls and fundraising as measurements of a candidate's worthiness. A more "democratic" system that prioritized the votes of actual voters in the primaries and caucuses would have to treat this pre-election-year noise with a lot less attention and not try to sort out the candidates by pre-political means. But, since politics has become entertainment, there is obviously no chance of that happening.

Of course, if you are going to have debates this early, some sort of criteria have to be set for who can qualify. Otherwise the "debates" would be an even more disorderly shambles than they already actually are. Who can blame the DNC for "fighting the last war" and trying to avoid the sorry spectacle the Republicans served up with their debates in 2016? The problem is that every reform, every change in process almost invariably involves "fighting the last war" and results in unintended consequences that are objected to in the current context.

The candidates who failed to qualify remain free to continue their campaigns. They can still campaign the old-fashioned way, by asking people in Iowa and New Hampshire to vote for them in 2020. Who can predict any outcome with certainty? Maybe one of the candidates who failed to qualify for the September debate will surprise the pollsters, fundraisers, and pundits in Iowa or New Hampshire.  That might or might not produce the best possible president, but it would probably be good for the democratic process overall.

The one really good thing about the September debate is that, for the first time, all those generally thought to be major contenders will be on the same stage debating each other. Having 10 people competing on one stage is still procedurally too many and not the best format for picking a president, but it does at least offer the public an opportunity to compare them in that unique setting, which certainly is better than relying on the comparisons fed to us exclusively by pollsters, fundraisers, and pundits..

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