The Democratic National Committee(DNC) has put itself into a
political conundrum of its own contrivance, and unless it resolves this
dilemma, it could negatively affect the liberal party’s attempt next
year to recapture the White House and defeat Donald Trump.
The circumstance of an historically large field of candidates in itself
is not necessarily problematic. Republicans in 2016 ended up with 17
major candidates at the outset of their national TV debates. GOP
officials like to say that their rules and control of the debates made
them successful, but it was probably more that the series of debates
took place on all the networks, and their ongoing spectacle attracted
large audiences which, thanks to a TV entertainment-savvy candidate
led to his upset win of the GOP nomination and his surprise victory
Before going further, a bit of presidential debate history.
The first formal TV debate occurred in 1960 between Vice President
Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy. Kennedy’s appearance is
credited with boosting his eventual narrow victory, although polls of
radio audiences who only heard the debate thought Nixon had won
the debate encounter. The TV network then, and subsequently until
2016, controlled the format of the presidential debates, selecting the
locations, moderators, questions and rules of the debate. After the 2012
GOP debates which provoked a roller coaster of “winners” from debate
to debate, and charges that moderators were biased, the Republican
National Committee (RNC), as well as the DNC, decided to assume
some control. The 2016 GOP field required each debate to be in two
segments (to accommodate the number of candidates), and the RNC
insisted on input on the moderators. Since all the major five networks
(NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN and FOX) had at least one debate, the
candidates had to observe the rules, or risk being excluded from them.
The 2020 presidential debate cycle will begin in late June, 2019 with a
Democratic debate in Florida. Currently, there are likely to be more
than 20 “major”candidates in their field. Sixteen have already qualified
for the TV debates, and up to a half dozen more could qualify by June.
The DNC is setting up the rules for these debates, but one decision it
has made could end up self-sabotaging their own efforts.
Claiming that Fox News is biased against Democrats, the DNC has
announced it will not sanction any debate on the network. Inasmuch
as the other four networks are widely believed to be hostile to President
Trump, singling out the more conservative Fox network has seems
ludicrous on its face. But the DNC would penalize any presidential
candidate who appeared in a Fox debate, presumably by excluding
them from the other debates.
Fox has quickly responded to the DNC by offering individual
Democratic candidates “town hall” programs of their own. Since Fox
has very large audiences, these town halls have so far been quite
successful, most notably perhaps the one with Bernie Sanders. Other
Democratic candidates are lining up for their own town halls --- which
constitute major free political advertising.
There is nothing now to prevent Fox from scheduling their own
presidential debate, albeit without DNC sanction, sometime in the
autumn or winter. Although they could be penalized, candidates lower
in the polls have little to lose and perhaps much to gain by defying the
DNC and appearing in the Fox debate. Bernie Sanders currently is a
Democratic frontrunner, and presumably need not fear DNC penalty.
If the DNC tried to exclude him from a debate, after what it did to him
in 2016 when he ran against Hillary Clinton, there would be massive
outrage and a civil war among Democratic voters in response that
would threaten the Democrats’ chances in November. Senator Sanders
has already had success on Fox, and could appear in a Fox debate
therefore presumably with impunity. What would the other major
Democrats then do --- boycott Fox and allow Sanders and several other
candidates the free advertising of a debate by themselves?
The decision by the DNC to boycott Fox seems ultimately arbitrary
and untenable. Fox is no more biased than any of the other networks,
and in offering Democratic candidates town halls ostensibly less so. Its
large audience base makes its air time desirable to any candidate, high
or low in the polls.
It is overwhelmingly tempting now, as former GOP White House press
secretary Sean Spicer and others have asserted, for Fox to schedule a
presidential debate later in the year, with or without DNC sanction. If
some candidates boycott it, it will only increase the audience size and
interest in it, especially if Bernie Sanders and/or other major candidates
appear in it.
It would seem to be good sense for the DNC to drop its boycott of Fox.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.