No more food fights: The case for issue-specific presidential primary debates

No more food fights: The case for issue-specific presidential primary debates

As the second Democratic presidential primary debates approach next week, it’s a good time to consider the structure of future debates. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has decided that there will be four more debates in 2019: one each in September, October, November and December. Six more debates are scheduled for 2020.

So far, the debates have been free-wheeling affairs, with questions and coverage focused mostly on winnowing the large field of more than 20 candidates. For the remaining debates, it would serve the interests of our national democracy to focus on the issues that are most important to the general public, and to do so one issue at a time.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates already support a climate change debate, something environmental activists are demanding. By one count 15 candidates like the idea, including the purported frontrunners, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE and Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersManchin suggests pausing talks on .5 trillion package until 2022: report Yarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed Sanders calls deadly Afghan drone strike 'unacceptable' MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Trojan Horse of protectionism Federal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE (D-Mass.). Another candidate, Washington Governor Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeSeattle area to require COVID-19 vaccine to enter indoor venues Washington state troopers, firefighters sue over vaccine mandate Washington state enacting mask mandate for large outdoor events MORE, has made climate the organizing priority of his campaign.


One reason the DNC and its 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, have rejected this proposal is that they believe it could be interpreted as favoring a single-issue candidate, which they see as unfair to candidates who prioritize other issues.

Here is another idea. The DNC should consider focusing its remaining 10 debates on a series of substantive topics, including climate. 

Here is a potential list of important topics that might be considered for the next 10 Democratic debates. The topics are adapted from the 2016 Democratic Party Platform. The DNC and remaining candidates might refine the topics and decide when best to schedule them.

  • Campaign finance, voting rights, fair elections and the courts
  • Climate, clean energy and environmental justice
  • Criminal justice and immigration
  • Economic security, economic fairness and jobs
  • Education and internet policy
  • Foreign policy, national security and valuing veterans
  • Health care and safety (including reproductive rights, prescription drug prices, opioid addiction and prevention of gun violence)
  • Housing, poverty reduction and caring for seniors
  • Racial justice and protection of rights for all
  • Tax, trade, antitrust, finance and agriculture

There are several advantages to this format. First and foremost, it would serve to educate the public on the major policy issues facing the nation. Free-style debates leave too much room for moderators to pander to current news trends in “reality show” form  or ask “gotcha” questions based on salacious, embarrassing or difficult situations. Issue-oriented debates would focus attention on what matters and what substantively differentiates the candidates from one another.

Second, issue-specific debates would work against the tendency of the media to concentrate coverage on the presidential horse race. Who is up and who is down? Who did best in their set presentations and in sparring with others, and who did worst? It’s better to focus on real policy.


Third, issue-specific debates for Democrats would avoid the trap of giving the incumbent president an extended preview of non-issue-related debating styles to assist in his preparation for the general election. The president is quite calculated in this regard. Issue-specific debates would empower Democrats as a whole to highlight areas of unity that differentiate them from the positions taken by Republicans.

Issue-specific debates would better serve all of us—Democrats, Republicans and independents. They would improve on an otherwise long, unstructured series likely to feature too many of what Sen. Kamala Harris aptly characterized as “food fights.”

Eric W. Orts is the Guardsmark Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the faculty director of the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, and an executive committee member of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy.