Democrats Facing 2016 Debate Dilemma

The party is starting discussions about 2016 primary debates, but it’s challenging to do without knowing what Hillary Clinton’s opposition will look like.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 23: Hillary Clinton is viewed in the audience as U.S. President Barack Obama, who is in New York City for the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative on September 23, 2014 in New York City.
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
Jan. 29, 2015, 3 p.m.

Demo­crats are fa­cing a grow­ing lo­gist­ic­al di­lemma as their plan­ning for the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion gets un­der­way: They need to start or­gan­iz­ing a pro­cess for pres­id­en­tial primary de­bates, but there aren’t any can­did­ates to in­vite. And with Hil­lary Clin­ton likely to clear the field of ser­i­ous com­pet­i­tion, she may want to avoid de­bat­ing her op­pos­i­tion al­to­geth­er.

Na­tion­al Demo­crats have be­gun the pro­cess of plan­ning for primary de­bates, but they stress that everything is in the very early stages. Top Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee aides are in touch with in­ter­ested TV net­works and po­ten­tial co­spon­sor­ing groups to dis­cuss dates and formats, as well as with rep­res­ent­at­ives of all pro­spect­ive 2016 Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates.

But how many de­bates, where and when they’re held, and what they look like de­pend en­tirely on which Demo­crats end up get­ting in­to the race — and if Clin­ton faces second-tier op­pos­i­tion, there’s a chance there won’t be any de­bates. Un­like with Re­pub­lic­ans, who have long known the like­li­hood of a big field and could plan their de­bates ac­cord­ingly, the Demo­crats’ pro­cess has al­ways been more un­cer­tain.

Ini­tial con­ver­sa­tions about the next year’s de­bate sched­ule have taken place, but party of­fi­cials ac­know­ledge the de­tails won’t be ironed out un­til it’s clear who’s run­ning and who isn’t.

“We’ve met with [the DNC], I know oth­ers have as well — but they just don’t know what the field is go­ing to look like,” said one TV net­work source. “There’s a scen­ario where Hil­lary is the only kind of ser­i­ous cred­ible can­did­ate, in which case they might want zero de­bates or very, very few.”

A few things are cer­tain: There will be few­er Demo­crat­ic de­bates than in 2008 and they’ll start con­sid­er­ably later in the cycle. Obama and Clin­ton de­bated 27 times dur­ing the 2008 primary, a stag­ger­ing num­ber that party of­fi­cials have no de­sire to re­peat. And in­stead of a spring start for those de­bates — the first one of the 2008 cycle was held in late April 2007 — net­works and the DNC an­ti­cip­ate the earli­est a de­bate could start is the fall.

But if the field is small and Clin­ton is far ahead in polling, in­siders ex­pect her to have a lot of sway over the de­bate pro­cess and sched­ule — which may mean a much trim­mer de­bate sched­ule than in years past.

“In a pro­spect­ive Clin­ton can­did­acy “¦ there’s a very strong chance she’ll start off with a very strong lead,” said vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic strategist Chris Le­hane. “That would give her a little bit of a stronger hand to play in terms of both de­term­in­ing how many de­bates are ac­tu­ally pro­posed and which ones she ac­tu­ally agrees to.”

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s can­did­acy looks to be a near-cer­tainty at this point, but what’s less clear is which of her po­ten­tial op­pon­ents will ac­tu­ally de­cide to run. Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, former Sen. Jim Webb of Vir­gin­ia, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont have all ex­pressed in­terest in the race; pro­gress­ive sup­port­ers of Eliza­beth War­ren are hop­ing to pull the first-term sen­at­or from Mas­sachu­setts in­to the race as well, but thus far she’s shown no in­terest.

Re­pub­lic­ans an­nounced a tent­at­ive de­bate sched­ule earli­er this month for the 2016 primary, be­gin­ning with an Au­gust event in Ohio.

De­pend­ing on how the field shapes up, Clin­ton could be in a tough spot either way when it comes to de­bates. On one hand, if she faces a field with min­im­al op­pos­i­tion — with only one less­er-known can­did­ate, such as Sanders or Webb — her cam­paign, and the TV net­works, might be less in­ter­ested in or­gan­iz­ing that face-off than they would with a big­ger field.

Ob­serv­ers likened 2016 to the race between Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Brad­ley in the 2000 Demo­crat­ic primary: Gore, as the sit­ting vice pres­id­ent, was the fa­vor­ite for the nom­in­a­tion, but Brad­ley put up a le­git­im­ate chal­lenge and even out­raised Gore at points along the way. The two faced off in a total of nine de­bates between Oc­to­ber 1999 and March 2000.

But Le­hane, who worked for Gore that year, said that Clin­ton, in 2016, could have the op­tion not to de­bate if she didn’t want to — a lux­ury neither Gore nor Brad­ley had in 2000. That primary “wasn’t a situ­ation where Al Gore was at 80 per­cent [in the polls] and Bill Brad­ley was in single di­gits and Gore could just ig­nore de­bates,” he said.

Still, many Demo­crats feel that not de­bat­ing could be just as dan­ger­ous. The chal­len­ging de­bates between Obama and Clin­ton in 2007 and 2008 made them both bet­ter can­did­ates, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al top Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials. Many Demo­crats feel that Clin­ton, whose pres­id­en­tial bid began eight years ago, could use the prac­tice to sharpen her skills ahead of the gen­er­al elec­tion. Hold­ing no de­bates would be a pub­lic re­la­tions chal­lenge for the Demo­crat­ic Party, too. They’re me­dia events, and they help bring vis­ib­il­ity to the party’s even­tu­al nom­in­ee. Without de­bates, Re­pub­lic­ans would get all the highly pub­li­cized, tele­vised face-offs to them­selves.

“Barack Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton (as well as Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Richard­son, John Ed­wards, and more) had at least two dozen de­bates in 2008. From that clash, Barack Obama emerged stronger, tough­er, smarter — and the Demo­crat­ic Party quickly united around him,” long­time Demo­crat­ic strategist and Clin­ton ally Paul Begala said in an e-mail.

“So while I am for Hil­lary, big-time “¦ I think some good, chal­len­ging de­bates would be good for her and good for the party,” he said.

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