DNC's debate plans diminish party's 2020 prospects

DNC's debate plans diminish party's 2020 prospects
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Democratic National Committee chairman Tom PerezThomas PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE has triumphantly announced the party’s plans for 12 presidential primary “debates” in advance of the 2020 general election. The first event will be broadcast on NBC-MSNBC-Telemundo in June, with the second of the series to be shown by CNN in July. Perez says these campaign spectacles will provide “unprecedented opportunity for candidates and voters to get to know each other.”

The only thing that will be unprecedented about these events is the shallowness and sensationalism of having 20 candidates verbally brawl in fake, soundbite exchanges.


Perez acting all excited about this upcoming debate chaos is similar to George Custer taking delight in riding towards Little Big Horn. The only winners will be the media outlets, which will get a ratings boost and a platform on which to promote themselves. NBC News chairman Andy Lack is already bragging in a memo to employees that snagging the first debate is “a great testament to the hard work of the entire politics team, our commitment to dogged reporting, and the reach and influence of NBC News.”

The DNC apparently learned nothing from watching the hysterical Republican candidate forums in 2016.

Perez might consider some of the GOP lowlights of the last presidential primary season: Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Biden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic MORE insulted almost all of his debate opponents. There was “lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” and “low energy Jeb,” just to recall a few. Jeb Bush boldly told Trump, “You are not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” and Trump proceeded to do exactly that, as Bush faded from the campaign.

The GOP debates also featured discussion of Rosie O’Donnell’s appearance, the size of Trump’s hands, and a voice-raising skirmish between Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Break glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins MORE and Chris Christie that left both of them out of contention. Bush’s most memorable line was saying, “I know what I don’t know.” The Sept., 2015 debate featured 11 candidates on stage for a viewer-torturing three hours. After the food fight, CNN reported the winners as Carly Fiorina, Rubio, Bush and Christie. Little good that debate “win” did for any of them.

The DNC has put itself in the positon of not remembering history and thus getting ready to repeat it. These made-for-television events are not “debates” in any traditional sense, but rather parallel press conferences designed to promote one-liners and the simplest of argumentation. It was hardly a surprise that a reality television personality and first-time politician emerged from the GOP primary field in 2016 over more experienced politicians.


The crowded Democratic primary field means the early debates will be held on two separate evenings, with ten candidates featured each night. The crowded stage prevents candidates from fully engaging each other in any meaningful way — especially since half the field will be speaking on a different night. The actual cast of debaters will be determined by some ill-defined formula of public polling and the size of candidate donor rolls.  No doubt, anybody left off the stage will call foul, leaving the DNC again subject to complaints about bias, just like in 2016 when the debate process was designed to support Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive things to watch in two Ohio special election primaries Clintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections MORE.

Perez thinks these Trump-bashing fests will focus the nation’s attention on his party’s presidential contenders and keep Trump from dominating the nation’s dialogue.  Debates over the years, however, hardly change the trajectory of a campaign season, and Trump can — and likely will — disrupt the news agenda with a single tweet.

Television is a medium of visuals and emotions. Television just can’t engage the nation’s challenges in hyped and glitzy debate productions that look more like Super Bowl halftime shows. Political parties are handing over the nation’s political dialogue to big media, giving television unnecessary and unhelpful leverage in coordinating the public sphere.

John Kennedy wrote in 1959 of the harm television could do to the nation’s political process. He feared political dialogue would be reduced to “gimmickry” and that television would dictate the direction of discourse. He was the prophet, and political leaders such as Perez are still playing along. Candidates and voters won’t get to know each other through debates. Voters will only find out which candidates can deliver pithy phrases and stand on their feet for three hours, hardly the factors that qualify somebody to be president.

The wise and confident presidential hopeful should bypass the entire debate process and instead do or say something meaningful on debate days. That would truly distinguish a bold candidate from the debate participants elbowing each other for attention on a television stage.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.