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An Undemocratic Party? Ahead of First Debate, Criticism Grows over DNC’s Move to Control Process

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Five Democratic presidential candidates will square off tonight in Las Vegas for the first of six debates in the 2016 campaign. The participants are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee. Hawaii Congressmember and Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Tulsi Gabbard will not be attending the debate, and says she was disinvited after publicly calling for more than six debates. We get a preview of the debate with Bill Curry, Salon.com political columnist, former White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Five Democratic presidential candidates will square off tonight in Las Vegas for the first of six debates in the 2016 campaign. Yes, six debates—that’s precisely the sticking point for critics of the process, including some candidates and several party leaders. Democratic National Committee Vice Chairwoman Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii, said she was disinvited from tonight’s event after she appeared on TV and called for more debates. Speaking on CNN, Gabbard explained what happened.

REP. TULSI GABBARD: I’ve been pretty vocal about calling out for more debates. I’ve been calling for more debates to give the American people the opportunity to hear from these presidential candidates, to listen to what they’ve got to say, to hold them accountable for their views and their positions. Because that differentiated from the decision that the chairwoman made from the DNC, I was told that I was no longer welcome to come to the debate.

AMY GOODMAN: The participants in tonight’s debate are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee. One candidate who was not invited was Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, who recently appeared on Democracy Now! and criticized the debate process.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: What I think we need to do is to raise the level of the debate. This is not just about telling some people they can’t speak or trying to silence the ability of certain interests to be in the political process. This is about achieving the fundamental equality of our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on tonight’s debate and Democratic politics, I’m joined by Bill Curry, weekly political columnist at Salon.com. His most recent article is called “The DNC Screwed Hillary—Now Get Ready for a Bernie Sanders Earthquake.” Curry was a White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He’s now working on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bill. Talk about this debate. Give us a preview. What are the rules? Who determines them? Who gets in? Who gets out? And how many debates overall?

BILL CURRY: Good morning, Amy. Great to be with you.

You know, when the announcement came in early August from Chairwoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz that there would be only six debates, all the coverage said, “The DNC had announced,” and I wondered at the time what that meant. Who had made this decision? Had there been a meeting of the entire Democratic National Committee or its Executive Committee or a subcommittee? Had there been an agenda? Anyone keep minutes? Was there a vote? And so, I called early last week to ask. I spoke to their communications director, very nice man named Luis Miranda. And it took a while to figure out that there was never any meeting of any kind, that no elected official within the Democratic Party had taken part in this. There had certainly been no public event, no notice, no vote. The chairwoman, Schultz, who was a staunch supporter and ally of Hillary Clinton in 2008, had simply taken it upon herself to make this decision. She was announcing her own decision to curtail the number of debates, to limit them to six.

In 2008, the last time there was an open contest for a Democratic nomination, there were 26 debates, not six. They began in April of 2007, six months ahead of when they’re beginning now. And people were free—candidates, that is—to participate in any kind of debate anywhere that they wanted to, that being consistent with most people’s notions of the First Amendment. In this year, not only are there six, but any candidate who appears in any debate that hasn’t been sanctioned by the party is thus barred, thereby barred from participating in any more of the sanctioned, of the official debates. And so, I just find—you know, when you realize this is an organization that has the word “democratic” right in its title, that to have a process that shuts down open discussion in such a draconian fashion, I think, is pretty amazing. And so, the vice chairwoman, the congresswoman from [Hawaii], Ms. Gabbard, has spoken up. Think about it: She’s the vice chairwoman, and she found out about it in the newspapers. And so, I think it’s a terrible idea.

And I’ll just add one more thing. To the question of the process itself, there are a number of affected parties. One are the four other candidates, all of whom want more debates and have said so publicly. The other are the voters, who have a right to see who the other candidates are, who have a right to see the front-runner tested, who have a right to try to develop ideas that the Democratic Party has been, I think, lax in developing—questions of the globalization, of pay-to-play politics, global warming. The party’s positions on all these things, you know, to me, have really—have hardly been, you know, really, in a leadership fashion. We’ve been trailing the issues as the years have gone by, in these last few years especially. And so, there’s a chance here in these debates to do what debates can do—to crack a process open, to bring people in. And they decided not to do that.

I think it’s fair to say that when I say “they,” I mean the chairwoman has decided to do this, because she thinks it’s good for Hillary Clinton. She thinks it’s good, as insiders do in both parties, to help the front-runner, the party favorite, the establishment candidate, wrap things up early without too much of a mess and too much of a fight. And I don’t think in that way as I said in my article, I think she’s only enabling Clinton, not really helping her. I think that Clinton needs to be brought outdoors more. I think she needs to be in an authentic give-and-take, not in these tight, insular, scripted situations. But above all, all the rest of us need that to happen. And so, I applaud the congresswoman and anyone else who’s stood up and tried to open this process up a little more.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Curry, your article suggests that it’s the previous losers of each party who are very much determining what happens with these debates—Romney and Hillary Clinton.

BILL CURRY: Yeah, well, they look at what happened with Romney in the last election, and they think that his being out front—the Republicans, on their side, they have this crazy rule in which, starting on March 15th, just six weeks after the first caucus in Iowa in the first week of February, all of their caucuses and primaries are winner-take-all, or nearly all of them. And the idea was to help someone like Jeb Bush or some Jeb Bush doppelgänger, or whoever the establishment guy was who might be ahead, again, to close the process down, to stop a Trump type before he could break too much crockery and cause too much trouble. And in reality, what they have—what they didn’t foresee were two things: one, Trump, and, two, a field the size of the Boston Marathon. And so, what they’ve got now are 15 candidates. If seven of them are still there on Super Tuesday and Trump is still leading with 26, 27 percent of the vote, he could get 27 percent of the vote and 100 percent of the delegates, which is the only way he could ever be nominated, even by the Republican Party. And so, a rule that was set up to exclude him and to make life easier for whoever their party guy, the favorite, was going to be has in fact given him his only prayer of being nominated.

And it’s the same thing on the Democratic side. I think, to some degree, Hillary Clinton would have been a lot better off over the last few months if she had been out in open debate taking questions. She would have at least had the chance to remind people that stands for something more than the email scandals, that there’s something more to her than all that. And the party would have had a chance, in real time, to develop alternatives, to push her further.

It’s amazing to me what Sanders has accomplished, when you think about this. If you look at the last 50 years, you can find very few examples of a presidential candidate, even in a general election, really moving a debate. In the last few months, without even being able to be on television—tonight is his first shot at reaching those centrist Democrats. For most of them, it will be the first time they’ve seen him. And yet Sanders has already moved the XL pipeline debate and the Trans-Pacific Partnership debate; by forcing Hillary’s hand, he has brought tremendous pressure on the Democrats in Congress. If in fact the pipeline goes down and if in fact the Trans-Pacific Partnership goes down, Sanders, more than any other person, should get the credit. That’s an amazing accomplishment, even more than what he’s achieved in the polls, in the donors, in the packed stadiums. To be moving the debate this much without even benefit of the showcase of a debate is really pretty incredible.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Bill Curry, this whole issue of Joe Biden, whether he’ll enter the race, whether he will actually fly from Washington to Las Vegas?


AMY GOODMAN: They’ve got a podium set for him. Is that just CNN wanting more people to watch, you know, build the suspense?

BILL CURRY: Yes, it is. And I would also point out, by the way, that as long as they’ve got the extra lectern, they could probably just say to Lawrence Lessig, “Listen, if Joe gets here, it’s his. But if he’s not, as long as we have this sixth lectern right next to the stage anyway, why don’t you come on in?”—having raised a million dollars and being a legitimate candidate, with the most legitimate issue.

And again, they think keeping him out helps them. Here’s why they’re so wrong. This is—I would make the argument very strongly that the Democratic Party today, and progressive issues generally, have the support of the majority of Americans in almost every poll on every issue, whether it’s gun safety or the Cuban embargo or gay marriage or immigration policy. You can go from issue—hot issue to hot issue to hot issue, and people, by 60 percent to two-thirds, prefer the Democratic position. But Republicans control the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the next election is a dead heat. How come? I think it’s because people are so angry with the government. I think it’s because this government has become so corrupt that it is odious even in the eyes of patriots.

And I think that bringing a Lawrence Lessig in, to force every candidate in this race—even Bernie could talk a little bit more about this, in my view. He’s the best on it in the field, but we should pay more attention. The people we need to put into a governing coalition in this country, the people we need to get to that majority, they want to know that the party of government is ready to fix the government. And that means ready to curb all this extraordinary corporate interest; to take private money out of public policy; to get revolving-door, whistleblower, ethics and open government rules that really have teeth, rather than the fraudulent rules that we have on the books now. Bringing someone like Lawrence Lessig into this debate could light that issue up in a way that the party has totally failed to do, could draw the attention of the American people to some solutions that they might begin to believe in, and make it more possible for a party that is supposed to be the party of progress and reform to actually win an election.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Bill Curry. Bill Curry is a political columnist at Salon.com. We will link to your most recent piece, “The DNC Screwed Hillary—Now Get Ready for a Bernie Sanders Earthquake.” Curry was a White House counselor to President Clinton, two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut, now working on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism. We’ll be back in a moment.

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