Editorial: Debate rules shortchange democracy

Published: 9/12/2019 7:00:16 AM

Tonight, voters, most of whom have only just begun to pay serious attention to the contestants seeking to replace Donald Trump, will have a chance to see 10 of the Democratic candidates in action. The other 10 failed to meet the Democratic National Committee’s terms to participate. The field of ideas will thus be narrowed, voters will be deprived of information that might change their opinion and democracy will be shortchanged.

Few people know what the DNC is or who its members are. Few who do trust the organization, which sets rules designed to winnow an unmanageable slate down to size. The rules do not, at first, seem unreasonable or designed to tilt the field in one direction or another. To qualify for this third debate a candidate must have received contributions from at least 130,000 unique voters in 20 states and garnered at least 2% support in at least three DNC-approved polls.

Fair enough. But the committee, to maintain control, operates like a mob boss. A candidate, whether they make the DNC’s cut or not, who participates in an independent debate with his or her rivals is banned from taking part in any future DNC-sanctioned debate. Take part in an unsanctioned debate if you want, the DNC says, but then you’ll be dead to us. Past primaries have seen debates hosted by media outlets, universities or the League of Women Voters, which sponsored the debates in a bipartisan fashion for years until it was squeezed out by the leadership of both parties.

Today it’s no longer voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who conduct the first winnowing of Democratic presidential hopefuls but DNC rules. After just two debates, seven of the initial 27 candidates have dropped out.

Historically, governors have been the most successful presidential contenders. Seventeen presidents have been governors, including nine who went directly from their State House to the Oval Office. No governor or former governor will be on stage tonight. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington and former governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, stymied by the DNC’s debate rules, have dropped out; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock will be on the sidelines.

The DNC rules created a Catch-22. A candidate needs to show support to get on the stage but can’t raise that support without the national exposure a debate provides. There is, however, another way a contender can qualify; spend what it takes. California hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, a climate change activist and leader of a movement to impeach President Trump, didn’t qualify for this debate but he’s on deck for the next one.

The news prompted Bullock, a Democrat elected in a state that voted for Trump, to say: “Tom Steyer spent nearly $10 million to buy his way onto the debate stage. But no matter what the (DNC) says, money doesn’t vote. People do.” We agree.

Missing tonight will be Bullock, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, former representatives John Delaney of Maryland and Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, mayors Bill de Blasio of New York City and Wayne Messam of Miramar, Fla., and author Marianne Williamson.

Most of them have little to no chance of becoming the nominee, and the field has to be narrowed.

We know of no perfect way to do that, but there’s something wrong with a system that excludes governors, senators and others who’ve served their country but rewards politically inexperienced candidates with very deep pockets.

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