The Corner

Elections

Would Tulsi Gabbard Really Choose to Skip a Primary Debate?

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, August 9, 2019. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

As our Tobias Hoonhout reports, Representative Tulsi Gabbard says she’s thinking of not attending next week’s debate to protest the Democratic National Committee. “The DNC and corporate media are essentially trying to usurp your role as voters in choosing who our Democratic nominee will be.”

Gabbard accuses the DNC and corporate media of trying to “replace the roles of voters in the early states, using polling and other arbitrary methods, which are not transparent or democratic, and holding so-called debates which really are not debates at all, but rather commercialized reality television meant to entertain, rather than to inform or enlighten.”

Gabbard’s compliant contains an inherent contradiction. Even after the past few candidates dropped out, there are still 19 Democratic candidates running for president: Colorado senator Michael Bennet, former vice president Joe Biden, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, Montana governor Steve Bullock, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, former Maryland congressman John Delaney, Gabbard, California senator Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, Miramar, Fla. mayor Wayne Messam, former Texas congressman Beto O’ Rourke, Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, former Pennsylvania congressman Joe Sestak, billionaire Tom Steyer, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and author Marianne Williamson.

The networks and DNC are not being mean or unfair when they set a threshold for debate participation. You don’t get to be in the debates just because you decided to run. The DNC and the networks started this cycle with two debates where the top twenty candidates were on stage. Are there masses clamoring for more Tim Ryan or Michael Bennet? How many viewers felt like the last debate was empty and meaningless without Steve Bullock? How many Democratic primary voters feel like they’ve been cheated by not getting a chance to hear from Wayne Messam? For what it’s worth, I kind of like Williamson and Sestak. But Williamson’s best number in any state or nationally in the RealClearPolitics average is 0.7, and Sestak’s at a perfect 0.0. I cannot, with a straight face, argue that their exclusion is a grand injustice.

Maybe the level of support in polls and the number of donors are imperfect measuring sticks. But what are the fairer alternatives? Yes, meeting the threshold for participation will be more difficult for lesser-known candidates who don’t have a broad network of donors. Shockingly, it turns out running for president is harder for obscure candidates who have a hard time raising money. Why, it’s almost as if people who want to run for president should attempt to raise their name recognition and broaden their base of support before they start running.

If Gabbard — a really good debater, by the way — thinks the debates have not been informative or enlightening, a major factor is probably the abbreviated time for answers, like the one minute and fifteen seconds limit in the last debate. The short time limit is because there are so many candidates on stage! If you want more time per candidate, have fewer candidates on stage. If you want more candidates on stage, you need to accept shorter time limits for answers, unless you want the debates to be more than three hours long. Or perhaps some masochist out there wants the debate spread out over three nights.

The threat to stay home is an uncharacteristically implausible one from Gabbard. She missed the last debate but collected enough donations and did well enough in the polls to make this coming debate. If she goes through with it and skips the debate, it will be a genuinely surprising gesture of defiance — and one that will probably leave the other candidates breathing a sigh of relief, having seen Gabbard dissect Kamala Harris’ record as a prosecutor with ruthless precision. But Gabbard would be giving up one more appearance in the national spotlight — perhaps her last.

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