When two additional Democratic presidential candidates who were not invited to the September debate qualified for the October event, I had hoped that the debate would be conducted on two nights, with six candidates participating in each debate. Clearly, having 10 candidates was too many, and the 12 crowded onto the stage last night were many too many. As usual, the top candidates got most of the air time. As is becoming common, no one scored big, and no one committed fatal mistakes.
We know that Biden, Sanders, and Warren are the current leaders of the pack, but it is also true that there is significant talent in the pool consisting of the nine other Democrats who sparred last night. Each of those other candidates, however, had limited time to talk.
The reality is that early Democratic front-runners for their party’s nomination often do not become the party’s standard-bearer. Think Carter, Clinton, or Obama. (Even Trump himself was an early long-shot.) Unless the seeming also-rans have significant opportunities to be seen in action by the public, the choice of candidates in 2020 will be drawn from among contenders who are too old, too depleted, and too radical.
Of course, as long as less popular candidates can accumulate funds from their most ardent fans, they can continue to toil on the campaign trail in hopes of sparking interest among the rest of the electorate. But continuing to sponsor debates that favor the already popular candidates makes it hard for anyone in the rest of the pack to gain traction.
So, here is my idea to level the presidential-primary playing field a bit. Let’s sponsor a debate—it can even use the standard format, even though that could be greatly improved (see “A Different Kind of Presidential Candidate Debate”)—that includes all the major candidates except the top three. In the current instance, that would leave 9 participants, a group that would not include Sanders, Biden, or Warren.
My second-tier debate would allow participants more time to speak and to make their case to the public for their candidacy. Of course, the debaters could simply take the opportunity to trash the front-runners, but I think that either would not happen or would not dominate the conversation. The debate would help Democrats decide which candidates are promising, perhaps surprisingly so, and which should go back to whatever they had been doing. It might even help to winnow the field faster.
What do we have to lose? What about it, DNC?
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