Is it absolutely necessary for national political parties to sanction so-called presidential debates? Do they have to play favorites in House and Senate primaries?
The 2016 cycle was undoubtedly a mess, with primaries leading to the nominations of two highly polarizing candidates and ending with the election of a deeply unpopular president. For 2020 the Democratic Party made a bunch of changes in their process; the Republican Party is actively opposing any suggestion of a primary challenge to the incumbent who demolishes anything that gets in his way.
Is it working? Does it have to be this way?
A lot of people decided to run for the Democratic nomination this year, and some have already dropped out. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper abandoned his presidential campaign one week and declared himself a candidate for the U.S. Senate the next. More on this later.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee dropped out this past week, discouraged by the impossibility of qualifying for the next round of debates. Inslee also failed to qualify for a climate change town hall which used the same DNC-concocted criteria for participation. Inslee, in case you didn’t notice him (and most people apparently didn’t), centered his entire presidential bid on the issue of climate change.
The irony of the climate change candidate being excluded from the climate change town hall was not lost on Senator Michael Bennet. Bennet gave the DNC an earful at their summer meeting this week, saying that the process was stifling debate at a time when it is needed most. He said that Democrats were “rewarding celebrity candidates with millions of Twitter followers, billionaires who buy their way onto the debate stage, and candidates who’ve been running for president for years.” Bennet asserted that campaigns were being forced to pay millions to Facebook “instead of harnessing the resources to talk to voters.” Bennet went on to say that the rules were bringing about the wrong outcome and would not help unseat the incumbent president.
I think he’s right. Bennet acknowledged that he would not be on the debate stage in September, but would be in the early caucus and primary election states “building the constituency for change this country needs.”
One can also make a credible case that those early voting states have an outsize influence on the selection of a president, and they haven’t always led to great general election contests between great candidates.
Living in Iowa during a presidential election cycle definitely gives a different perspective on this process. Is Iowa representative of the country as a whole? Are the political parties here inherently better than anywhere else? Nope. Many people here do take their role seriously and they try to learn about the candidates and see them up close, which is something you can actually do here.
This landscape is also subject to manipulation. In 2016, the Donald J. Trump Foundation held a very successful Iowa fundraiser and made donations to five Iowa veterans groups ahead of the Iowa caucus. The foundation’s conduct and a subsequent lawsuit led to a court-supervised dissolution. But Trump got the publicity he wanted, won the Iowa caucus and knocked down his challengers one by one.
In 2020, a billionaire former hedge fund manager has spent millions of his own money to raise his profile, mine voter data, and garner small dollar donations in an attempt to make the DNC-sanctioned debates. The billionaire’s ads — which show up in direct mail, television, social media, and (for all I know) banners pulled by airplanes, claim that he will take on corporations and enact term limits. “Trust the People” he says, but the message I’m getting is “Spend the Millions.” I don’t know whether this guy will make the debates, or whether it matters that much at this point: he’s a freaking billionaire.
A lot of people talk quite a bit about getting money out of politics and countering the influence of big corporations. Absolutely. But wait, this is incredibly difficult to do, especially when the parties themselves have set up processes that reward candidates with very deep pockets and open checkbooks.
If people actually want a president who is willing to fight to reform campaign finance, they are going to have to support candidates who walk the walk during their own campaigns.
This brings me back John Hickenlooper. I’m not especially sorry to see John Hickenlooper end his presidential bid. Though Hick has shown a lot of political savvy in getting elected and reelected in a liberal city and a purple state (two terms each as Denver mayor and Colorado governor), he was not a strong candidate at the national level.
Many, many people thought it made all the sense in the world for Hickenlooper to abandon his presidential campaign in favor of running for the U.S. Senate back in Colorado. Hick himself didn’t think much of the idea, panning it before he announced for president. Democrats know that to really make things happen in Washington, you need both the White House and Congress, that Colorado’s Cory Gardner is vulnerable, that Donald Trump is unpopular in Colorado, and that Hickenlooper has won statewide twice.
On the surface it seems like a no-brainer. However, Hickenlooper is not wildly popular with all Colorado Democrats or with several of the constituencies that have a lot of influence among Dems. Winning the Senate primary is not a foregone conclusion.
Not to worry, here comes the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to the rescue. The DSCC immediately started running ads to support Hick’s campaign — his DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY campaign.
Why are the DSCC picking favorites in a primary? The same reason that their House counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC, D-triple-C, or simply D-trip) have been doing exactly the same thing: the national organizations can’t bear the thought of people deciding these things for themselves, without the enlightened and well-funded insights, experience and staffers of the national party.
There were already a bunch of Democrats running for the U.S. Senate in Colorado before John Hickenlooper jumped in. Several of those other candidates have legislative experience and really want the job.
There were already a lot of Democrats running for president before Joe Biden finally made his candidacy official. Biden is so sure of the support of the national party that he skipped this week’s DNC summer meeting and went to New Hampshire instead.
And we’re back to arguments about “electability” and how we actually choose candidates in this country. What we need to be talking about, I think, is the purpose of a primary: to select a candidate we like.
We can worry about getting him or her elected later. And THAT is something the national party should help accomplish.