Herding cats may turn out to be child’s play compared with the task of corralling what could be some two dozen Democratic candidates vying for a place on the debate stage as the party tries to pick its opponent to President Trump in 2020.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is expected to reveal his plans before Christmas for how many debates the DNC will sanction and how it will decide who makes the cut.
The decisions are likely to be tricky.
A debate with more than a dozen candidates could seem ridiculous, but the spectacle of shunting high-profile minority candidates to a “kids’ table” afterthought debate because they aren’t polling high enough — as the Republican Party did in 2016 — could dent the DNC’s outreach efforts.
Jane Kleeb, a DNC member from Nebraska, said she hopes the party holds a lottery in the early debates to determine who makes which grouping.
“It is a luck of a draw,” she said, adding that could rub some well-known contenders the wrong way but would help ensure the process is fair and give little-known candidates a chance to break out. “We never know who the dark horse is going to be.”
“In the beginning, I do think you have to have a level playing field or make it as level as you can make it, but after three debates, you really do know who the top contenders are,” she said.
She also urged the party to consider holding a debate in rural America.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who ran for the presidential nomination in 2016 and is considering another bid, said the DNC must learn from the mistakes of the last time.
Otherwise, he said, the 2020 debates will be a “bizarre cross between the Jerry Springer Show and the old celebrity game show ‘Hollywood Squares.'”
Mr. O’Malley said both parties in 2016 caved to an “infotainment” model of debates, rewarding some candidates with more attention because they made for good TV rather than because they contributed to substantive discussions.
“It is not only about the schedule; it is also about the format,” he said. “The party needs to have some semblance of equal time when it comes to these debates and if we have so many candidates that we have to have two different debates, then so be it.”
Mr. O’Malley suggested that the candidates be broken up into three tiers: “billionaires, celebrities and public servants.”
Mr. Perez has kept close wraps on the debate details that he is hashing out with a handful of party operatives, including Mary Beth Cahill, who managed John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004.
He has indicated there would be more debates than 2016, when the Democratic contenders faced off nine times. He also said he is inclined to avoid the main card-undercard format that Republicans relied on to juggle 17 candidates.
“When I ran for DNC chair, I said one of the things we are going to do to rebuild trust is to make sure that we set out a primary debate calendar long in advance of who we know will be in the race,” Mr. Perez said at a recent breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. “Our job is to make sure that everybody gets a fair shake, and the process is fair — fair in fact and fair in perception.”
Democrats appear to have a nearly limitless — and high-powered — field shaping up, with a former vice president, a former first lady and secretary of state, a former attorney general, a former national security adviser, at least eight senators, a handful of members of the House, sitting and ex-governors and the odd billionaire or two eyeing runs.
“I want to make sure that everybody feels their candidate got a fair shake because what we have to ensure coming out of the convention is that we have a wind at our back, we have unity and we have excitement,” Mr. Perez told reporters.
That didn’t happen in the 2016 race, when the party was run by Rep, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
Mr. O’Malley and others complained that the vast majority of debate questions were directed at Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders, and the debates were penciled in at odd times — falling on weekends, outside of prime time and at the same time as major sporting events.
“The debates last time where a bit of a fraud,” Mr. O’Malley said. “It was almost as if the Democratic Party didn’t want people to see our debates.”
Dave O’Brien, a DNC member from Massachusetts, said the party should strive for a process that is fair but avoids a political circus rewarding candidates with the biggest mouths saying the most controversial things to grab the limelight.
“The fear I have is the debates are going to be whoever puts out the red meat is going to be the traction for that week, but I am afraid that is not how someone is going to win long term,” he said.
When it comes to debates, he said, “you cannot please everybody.”
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