Here's what's wrong with the Democrats' debate plan

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Montana Gov. and Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Charlie Neibergall/AP, Randall Hill/Reuters)

With all the silly handicapping and fantasy baseballing that contaminates our politics now, you would think the last thing you’d want, if you were trying to do something as important as choosing the next president, would be to create a situation where the fate of serious politicians who have yet to be heard hinges entirely on whether their national polling average is nine-tenths of a percent or just over 1 percent.

But then, you’re not running the Democratic Party. So you wouldn’t understand.

The situation I’m describing has to do with the Democratic primary debates, which begin in Miami on consecutive nights later this month. The party has decided that there’s room on the combined stages for only 20 of the 23 candidates seeking the nomination. (Maybe it’s 35 or 40 by now — who can really keep track?)

We should find out as early as today who among them barely made the cut and who didn’t.

If you’ve read about the winnowing process here but still don’t have a grasp on it, then don’t feel bad, because this is a little like quantum physics; only the Democratic chairman, Tom Perez, and maybe a dozen other people on the planet really get what’s going on, and everyone else just nods a lot.

Near as I can tell, it goes like this: The party will automatically admit to this first debate any candidate who can meet two thresholds. You have to clear 1 percent in an average of three credible national polls of your choosing, and you have to have collected donations from 65,000 donors, comprising at least 200 separate donors in 20 different states.

Also, you have to be able to read the Pledge of Allegiance backward with a blood-alcohol level of no less than .08 percent.

No, I made that last part up.

At this point, 13 candidates are expected to clear both hurdles. The rest will then be ranked according to which, if any, of the criteria they’ve managed to satisfy, with polling being the more important. (The criteria will get a little steeper in the second and third debate rounds, but it’s the same basic framework.)

All of this has led to a rather humiliating situation for Steve Bullock, the two-term governor of Montana, who was one of the last candidates to enter the race. Bullock’s campaign was certain it had cleared the 1 percent mark, but then the party decided that one of the polls he was citing didn’t really count because it asked voters to volunteer their preferred candidate, rather than choose from a list read off a script.

(You might think that the kind of poll Bullock is citing actually makes it harder, rather than easier, to achieve a 1 percent showing. Like I said, you don’t run the party.)

My issue with all this isn’t with the criteria Democrats are using. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, I do think polling and money at this stage of a campaign are pretty much meaningless, but I guess you have to start someplace.

And if you can’t find a way to electrify 1 percent of the primary electorate by this point, maybe you didn’t totally think through this whole presidential thing to begin with.

No, my problem with the process is that it assigns absolutely zero value to the thing that ought to matter a lot in a presidential campaign, and especially in this one: actual experience in governing.

This may not be the only criterion that counts, or even the most important, but it damn sure ought to count for something.

I know what a lot of you party apparatchiks are saying right now. Just what we need — more boring career politicians we’ve never heard of! All hail the establishment! Let’s all cry for some moderate governor from a flyover state!

Sure, OK. Except that for the last four years, at least, ever since Donald Trump arrived on the scene, Democrats have been telling me that their party isn’t like the Republican Party. They believe in governing, in expertise, in ideas. They value service over showmanship.

And if that’s even half true, then service ought to be a consideration here, along with your ability to get booked on cable TV and to buy a solid fundraising list.

Yes, there are plenty of candidates who will make the debates easily and who can boast of having won elections and governed. But it’s kind of crazy that Democratic voters trying to sort out the field might not hear a word from Bullock, the only Democrat running whose state voted for Trump, and who managed to expand Medicaid anyway.

John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor I wrote about here, has been saying some of the most interesting things on the trail lately, including a spirited rejection of socialism in favor of what he calls a plan to make capitalism work. But voters who tune in to Democratic debates may not even get to entertain that argument.

It’s just not right that a guy like Michael Bennet, the only candidate to have run a major urban school district, and who’s twice been elected to the Senate in a crucial swing state, might not be able to at least make his case alongside Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang.

Here’s what I’d propose. Go ahead and give a lectern to any Democrat who can meet the two criteria you’ve already got. But after that, rank the remaining candidates, assuming they can meet either one of those criteria, according to their experience.

In other words, if you can hit either the polling or the money target, and you’ve served in a statewide office, you should definitely get into the debate. Local officeholders, like members of Congress or the mayor of New York, should come after that. (And yes, I know New York City’s population is something like eight times that of Montana, but a state is still a state.)

Or if that doesn’t work for Democrats, here’s an even simpler idea: Eliminate no one.

Hold three separate debates on consecutive nights, instead of two, and ask the networks that carry them to choose the seating randomly. There’s no shortage of outlets that would carry these extra debates, and it demands nothing more of the candidates than the current plan does.

Then you could let viewers vote afterward on which candidates to include in the next round of debates, the way they do it on “The Voice,” or the way baseball is choosing its All-Stars. That would give Democrats all the nightly reality-show drama of Trumpian politics, while retaining the respect for hands-on governance that they claim sets them apart.

You would think Democrats would readily embrace the idea of more debates, more viewers and more of a hearing for candidates who actually know what they’re talking about.

But you know, your name isn’t Tom Perez.


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