Democrats are holding a primary debate tonight, much to the annoyance of political journalists everywhere whose Saturday nights are being ruined. Most galling off all, this appears to be a deliberate tactic to minimize viewership taken by the Democratic National Committee as a favor to Hillary Clinton, who wanted to minimize the number of debates. If that's right, though, the party has done its frontrunner no favors. It makes sense for Clinton to want to have fewer debates rather than more, but as long as Democrats are going to debate, she should want said debates to be seen by as many people as possible.
The problem, most likely, is the calendar was set months ago, before the first Democratic debate reminded everyone of how friendly the debate format is to Clinton's political skills.
She eclipsed Obama on the debate stage in her previous run, but as one Hill Democrat put it to me, "that was seven years ago," so her allies worried that she might be rusty and wanted to keep her rivals out of the spotlight. "The thinking that Hillary is awesome at debates really only became prevalent again after her strong performance in the first debate."
Consequently, by underestimating their own champion, the Democratic establishment has ended up doing Clinton a disservice.
Debates have a downside for Clinton
The Clinton campaign's basic impulse to minimize the number of debates, though not great for the media, makes perfect sense. She is the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination, and anything she says or does can basically only hurt her — not so much by jeopardizing her shot at the nomination as by getting her to make commitments that could hurt her in the general. Debates are, among other things, a mechanism through which party stakeholders force candidates to make public commitments to pursue controversial policy goals.
To the extent that Clinton can reduce the quantity of opportunities stakeholders have to put her through this, it makes sense for her to do so.
Minimizing viewership makes no sense
But the idea — whether inferred by Clinton's campaign or by her allies at the DNC independently — that fewer viewers is better for Clinton is a mistake. The main problem is that all the downside risks of the debate are present no matter how few people are watching. One Democrat speculated to me that the goal was not just to minimize viewership but to make the event look "insignificant" in the eyes of the media. But the reality is that if Clinton commits a gaffe, all bets are off, and it will be replayed online and on cable endlessly no matter how little-watched and insignificant the original event was.
In policy terms, too, the risk for Clinton has nothing to do with how many people watch Saturday night's debate. Any unpopular commitments she makes will be recorded by the media and by her future opponents. The Republican nominee and his allies will bring it up during the general election, and the media will be on hand to verify that she really said it. Footage will be available. The size of the live audience will be irrelevant.
Debates are, structurally speaking, bad for primary election overdogs like Clinton. But Clinton also happens to be a candidate who tends to shine in debates. She is not a first-rate orator, and her consensus-oriented leadership style tends to make it impossible for her speechwriters to craft truly excellent rhetoric for her. But she is much wonkier than the typical elected official, and she's certainly a better public speaker than your average policy wonk. Very few politicians — and certainly nobody who is running in 2016 — can match the sheer range of issues she can talk about in a well-informed, reasonably persuasive way.
Clinton is good at debating
Clinton's depth of knowledge and breadth of experience is a huge advantage in the rambling, unpredictable context of a debate.
But this really only comes across if you actually sit down and watch the debate. Everyone who watched the first Democratic primary debate agreed that her performance was impressive. But it lacked a signature moment like the showdown where Marco Rubio humiliated Jeb Bush. Clinton didn't deliver a knockout punch to Bernie Sanders. She simply looked a little more comfortable and a little more conversant across a range of topics over an extended period of time. It's something you genuinely had to see for yourself to appreciate.
A Saturday night debate sticks Clinton with the worst of both worlds. If she gaffes or decides to come out in favor of slavery reparations, the damage will be done even if nobody's watching. But if she delivers another display of consistent competence and command, few people will be around to appreciate it.
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