More than a half-century ago, when law schools boasted a high flunk-out rate, unsmiling deans welcomed each incoming class by saying, “Look at the student on your left. Look at the student on your right. One of you won’t be here next year.”
That desperate paper-chase tradition defined the two debates hosted by CNN this week. More than half the 20 Democrats onstage at Detroit’s Fox Theatre are unlikely to meet the stringent requirements the Democratic National Committee has imposed on candidates who hope to qualify for the next debate, on September 12 in Houston. At the moment, only seven have qualified. The rest spent Tuesday and Wednesday evenings petrified that their time in Detroit would be their swan song as legitimate candidates.
As a result, the debates offered a ferocity more common on the eve of the Iowa caucuses than during early encounters when candidates normally would be introducing themselves and ballyhooing their accomplishments. Small wonder that Democrats Wednesday night frequently accused each other of using “Republican talking points.”
Sure, CNN’s three moderators did everything in their power to provoke controversy in the hopes that such pyrotechnics would goose ratings. But it was the sense that the field would soon be winnowed which set off the biggest fireworks, particularly on Wednesday night, when struggling candidates, mired in the middle or bottom of the pack, launched desperate, pay-attention-to-me-please attacks on front-runners like Joe Biden, hoping to create a made-for-TV moment that would be endlessly replayed on cable, prompting a wave of online donations and a bump in the national surveys. (That dynamic might explain why Tulsi Gabbard, for instance, strafed Kamala Harris’s mixed record on criminal justice.)
As a result, the Democrats came across as a party fractured by deep ideological fissures over health care, immigration, and criminal justice.
In truth, compared to the vicious infighting over Vietnam in the 1960s and Iraq in 2004, the Democrats today (united by their righteous horror at Donald Trump) are in rough agreement about where they want to take the country. The arguments, for example, surrounding health care (Medicare for All versus a more limited expansion of Obamacare) are over pace and scope rather than policy direction.
By traditional reckoning, the victors Wednesday night would have been Cory Booker (the hands-down winner for quotable lines), Julián Castro (who once again made a persuasive case for decriminalizing border crossing), and Michael Bennet (who positioned himself as the thoughtful Democratic moderate). These are the kind of candidates who normally would prompt a second look from still-undecided and unhurried Democrats, who know that we are still six months from the Iowa caucuses.
But Castro and Bennet may never again be permitted by the DNC to stride onto a debate stage. And that is the real story from Detroit as the campaign enters the August doldrums.
Following Wednesday night’s debate—in the midst of the general melee of the spin area, where TV technicians wield cameras like battering rams—I briefly caught up with Tom Perez, who chairs the DNC.
Some campaigns suspect that Perez wants to winnow the Democratic field down to as few as six candidates. But the DNC chair exuded innocence when I asked him how many candidates he expects to qualify for the September debate. It all depends on them, Perez said—in effect, citing the arduous new rules that require both 2 percent in the national polls and 130,000 individual online donors.
Most campaigns will find it impossible to meet the 130,000-donor threshold. A campaign manager for one of the candidates on the bubble estimated that it costs more than $3 million in online advertising (mostly on Facebook) to get even 65,000 donors. As the campaign operative put it, “The DNC is encouraging bad strategy. This is money that should be spent organizing in Iowa.”
A strategist for another candidate likely to be excluded from future debates said that it is now costing his campaign $90 to convince a single donor to give $1 online. Struggling candidates are also now depending on wealthy bundlers to raise the money to buy the online ads needed to recruit small donors. And in the ultimate coals-to-Newcastle move, billionaire self-funder Tom Steyer is now spending $100,000 a day to harvest enough online givers to meet the DNC’s requirements.
When I pressed Perez to explain the DNC’s insistence on arbitrarily culling the herd, he airily responded, “One of the most prolific grassroots fundraisers in politics is Donald Trump.... If you can’t connect with the grassroots every day as a Democrat, you’re going to have trouble winning.”
But the way that the Democratic presidential calendar has been organized since the days of Jimmy Carter encourages candidates to break through in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and then take off nationally. In 2004, for example, John Kerry jumped 40 points in the national Gallup Poll after winning Iowa and New Hampshire. In October 2007, Barack Obama was mired in the doldrums just above 20 percent support in the national Gallup Poll.
Very few candidates will have the chance to leap ahead after the early contests this cycle. This is a time when they should be going local, focusing on the early races in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Perez and the DNC have changed the rules to emphasize national fundraising. Why? The goal is not (despite Perez’s glib reference to Trump) to match the GOP’s grassroots fundraising operation, but rather to provide the TV networks with the dramatically smaller debate stages they crave for ratings reasons.
Of course, some winnowing might improve these debates. No-hopers like Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard and Bill de Blasio are cluttering up the stage for their own idiosyncratic reasons. But successful governors—like Steve Bullock (who did not make the initial cut for the first of the Democratic debates, in Miami) and Jay Inslee—will likely also be left on the cutting-room floor come September. They have every reason to rebel against the DNC’s rules, but they seem instead to be resigned to their fate. Bennet, whom I spoke to after the debate, agreed that the DNC requirements for the September debate were “arbitrary.” But he also said, with a hint of weary fatalism in his voice, “We’re just going to have to keep working.”
With no debates on the August schedule, the five upper-echelon Democrats (Biden, Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg) and the other serious strivers struggling to join their ranks will follow the familiar rituals of summer-and-the-living-is-easy politics.
That means pilgrimages to the Iowa State Fair, beginning next week, where this year’s butter sculpture will feature creamery versions of Sesame Street characters. And, of course, candidates will follow the triangle route of summer fundraising (and fun-raising) with obligatory stops on Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and in the Hamptons.
This being 2019, there, of course, will be hundreds of selfies. But many of the candidates—including some worthy of the Democratic nomination—should also pose for formal portraits. For August will mark the end of the line for those White House dreamers who fail to meet the DNC’s rigid rules for debating in September.