Democrats learned a lesson from their presidential primaries in 2016. Too bad they didn't learn a lesson from Republicans too. Instead, thanks to their desperation to maintain the perception of a fair playing field, the first round of presidential primary debates next week promises to be a debacle, one that will leave Democrats vulnerable to pointless grandstanding and worse.
Four years ago, the Democratic National Committee did its best to protect its presumed front-runner from any internecine damage in the primaries. The DNC, under pressure from Hillary Clinton, scheduled few debates, and held them at times not terribly conducive to viewing. They only held four debates before the Iowa caucuses, three of them on the weekends, one of which was scheduled between Hanukkah and Christmas. On top of that, DNC committee member and future chair Donna Brazile passed along debate questions to the Clinton campaign from her perch at CNN on at least two occasions before being exposed in the DNC-John Podesta email hack. Brazile denied the reports at first, but later claimed that she gave assistance to both Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
This time around, the DNC wants to make sure no one thinks they have their thumbs on the debate scales. The first debate won't be buried on a weekend when no one's watching, but will take place on Wednesday and Thursday nights next week in prime time. Their media partners are NBC and Telemundo, giving the 20 qualifying contenders two nights on the biggest possible stage to make their case to the American people. To avoid even a hint of establishmentarian favoritism, the candidates drew lots to determine their assignments.
Unfortunately for the DNC, they didn't pay attention to what happened on the other side of the aisle four years ago. Republicans at that time had a field almost as crowded as the Democrats do this cycle, with 17 contenders looking for attention. The GOP also used a double-round debate system all the way through until the start of the Iowa caucuses, seven debates in all, although those ran back-to-back on the same nights. At the time, that appeared to be the only way to accommodate all candidates equally.
Needless to say, the crowded stages didn't produce much enlightenment on policy or values. The first debate had panels of 10 and seven candidates for two hours of television time each. After accounting for commercials, that only left candidates in either debate with less than 12 minutes of talking time each, split into short snippets of time and several topics. Instead of debates, the time restrictions and the number of participants ended up producing nothing more substantive than insults and sloganeering.
Given the incentives produced in this format, it seems unsurprising in retrospect that the process rewarded the one candidate with a close association to professional wrestling. Not only did Donald Trump consistently steal the show through personal attacks on his competitors, he mixed it up with the moderators as well. He dominated the time allotments, although even then Trump only spoke for 10 minutes in the initial Fox News debate. (Sitting governor Scott Walker ended up with five minutes out of two hours.)
As the cycle wore on, the dynamics of the dual debate process wore out everyone. By the time of the late January debate in Des Moines just before the caucuses, they had become similar to the old schoolyard game King of the Hill; the candidates took turns climbing on top of one another while Trump took potshots at everyone.
Entertaining? Sure. Enlightening? Not really, and the need to top everyone else at the same time eliminated any connection between policy and voting decisions.
One has to wonder why the DNC didn't choose to adopt a different format rather than the two-ring circus model tested by the GOP. For example, the amount of time available for this round of debates, outside of commercial breaks, should be around 200 minutes of air time. That would allow for a series of one-on-one debates of 20 minutes each with all qualifying candidates. They might not get to every topic, and some of the matchups might be lopsided, but each candidate would at least get equal time to showcase their skills and/or expose their deficiencies in a real discussion. It would present the party's contenders in a much more dignified fashion than we're likely to witness next week — and give more room for substance, too.
If the DNC doesn't learn that lesson soon, their nominee will simply be the last one standing in the mud fight. And, as he proved four years ago, that environment suits Trump just fine.