The Debate Democrats Can’t Have

It’s an odd state of affairs when a party desperately doesn’t want you to watch their debates. After all, there are significant political advantages to highly publicized, highly watched debates; namely, it helps to get the candidates’ messages out to a lot of voters.

But Democrats have clearly made a different calculation. Rather than have a good number of debates, in primetime, and on week nights, Democrats scheduled just four debates before the first primary, three of which are on weekends.

So don’t fault yourself for not knowing that Democrats are scheduled to go toe-to-toe again on Saturday in the penultimate debate before the Iowa primary. Media reports are hard to come by and all the punditry is still focused on the Republican debate that happened earlier this week.

But why go to such extreme lengths to hide your debates? Why schedule three on Saturday nights, when few people are in front of their televisions, and the ones who are, are more likely to be binge watching Desperate Housewives than tuning into a political debate?

The reason is simple. After watching Clinton snatch defeat from the jaws of victory eight years ago, they’ve clearly anointed her the chosen one and have made moves to smooth her path. Unsurprisingly, this has angered some honest liberals who believe in the policy positions of their candidates, and see the debates as an opportunity to speak directly to on-the-fence voters. As Frank Bruni writes for the New York Times:

But we shouldn’t be so quick to forgive and forget how the Democratic Party has behaved.

It prides itself on being the true champion of democracy, more vigilant than the Republican Party about the disenfranchisement of voters, more invested in — and industrious about — making sure that as many people as possible are drawn into the process.

Then shouldn’t it want its candidates on vivid, continuous display? Shouldn’t it connect them with the largest audience that it can?

While other left-leaning pundits are concerned that the lack of debates and a meaningful opponent will leave her less battle-tested than her competition, Bruni argues that the main concern is that she’s too laden with armor.

“[A] real vulnerability is that she’s seen by voters as entrenched political royalty and thus distant — too distant — from those “everyday Americans” she talked about so much at the start of her campaign,” Bruni writes.

It also doesn’t help that it creates the appearance that she’s receiving special treatment, which reinforces the “above the law” narrative from the home-brew server and Clinton Foundation stories. 

But while some well-meaning Democrats no doubt do lament the hole in the public discourse created by the party’s decision to hide their debates, it’s no doubt worked out pretty well for them. One look at this week’s Republican debate, courtesy of Noah Rothman in Commentary, explains why.

The over 18 million Americans who tuned to CNN on Tuesday night for the first Republican presidential debate since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino might have been pleasantly surprised. American anxieties over the threat of radical Islamic terrorism are nearing or surpassing their immediate post-9/11 peaks, and those who turned on the news to hear a substantive debate over the near-and long-term security challenges facing the nation were privy to one. For Democrats, this has proven frustrating. Theirs is a party that cannot have a serious debate over matters related to national security without condemning their party’s leader and his brand of crisis management and, thus, jeopardizing its own electoral viability in the process.

Debate watchers who hoped to witness some of the frivolous internecine aggression that typified past GOP primary contests were disappointed. The Republican presidential candidates sparred over the threat posed by the Islamic State, both on the home front and overseas. They scuffled over the smartest and most effective strategic approach to combating the terrorist network on its home turf in Iraq and Syria. They argued over how best to contain a resurgent Moscow, and how to respond to incursions into NATO operating space inside Syria by Russian warplanes. They deliberated over privacy rights, communications monitoring programs, regime change, nuclear force posturing, Chinese revisionism, Iranian terrorism sponsorship, and the human cost of war. What’s more, a wide range of opinions were reflected in the candidates’ positions on those issues, and virtually every segment of the Republican Party’s coalition was represented competently.

Democrats aren’t able to offer the same type of debate. Current events have simply overwhelmed them. They desperately want to talk about gun control, climate change and income redistribution. Indeed, they want to focus on anything that draws attention from their inherently weak national security policies. The problem is, that’s not what voters want.

So Democrats should consider themselves lucky. They can gab to their hearts’ content about lower-tier issues without much concern, because frankly no one is watching.