It seems like the Republicans have been debating the 2016 nomination forever, while the Democrats just get started tonight. As Dara Lind points out, there will be five contenders on the stage tonight — not just Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Furthermore, who's not up there — Larry Lessig and not-quite-candidate Joe Biden — also opens up questions about the priorities and direction of the Democratic Party.
With fewer candidates and an obvious, established frontrunner, tonight's debate is unlikely to be as interesting as the last couple of Republican rounds. So should you bother watching anyway? I'm going to (and I'll be tweeting, as will some of the rest of the Mischiefs of Faction crowd, no doubt). But here are three reasons to watch, and three reasons to fire up Netflix instead.
Starting with the negative:
Why to skip the debate
There's no real possibility for an agenda
In a pre-debate post at Brookings, Richard Lempert and Molly Reynolds both suggest that candidates should be asked how they would deal with a Republican Congress and pursue strategies to break through gridlock. (Tom Mann perhaps more realistically asks how they would contribute to Democratic congressional victories.) The balance of political science research suggests that presidential leadership matters most "at the margins," and it's unlikely that even the most personable, eloquent president will be able to change the ideological outlook and commitments of congressional Republicans. So it doesn't matter what the candidates say tonight. It won't happen.
They're not going to attract any voters either
The people who are paying enough attention to watch a debate at this stage already know where they stand. There's no reason to believe that the candidates will be able to use this platform to reach out to new groups of voters — for Democrats to try to cultivate the "religious left," for example. Democrats have some pretty major demographic advantages, and the challenge will be getting lower-income voters, women, and ethnic and racial minorities to the polls on Election Day, not persuading Republicans or independents to join the fold.
Possibilities for challenging Hillary Clinton are limited
Bernie Sanders's presence and surprising levels of support have forced Clinton to reconsider some positions, most recently her stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But this has been happening for months now, and we don't need a debate to do it. Furthermore, have we ever had a frontrunner about whom we know so much? (Answer: Not since Clinton last ran in 2008.) We know exactly who she is. We know her strengths and weaknesses. We know that the Clintons are political animals, sometimes given more to expedience than to principle. We know she has mid-1990s DLC baggage on issues like crime (and she's not alone). There's no Barack Obama in this race — a mainstream, elite-approved, younger, viable candidate. Can we handle more discussions of the emails? Where do we stand on gefilte fish? When is Parks and Rec on? Someone please make it stop.
Okay, so why watch?
Where are the Democrats going?
Despite the grim prospects for divided government and more lurching from CR to CR, both parties will eventually need to offer some new policy ideas. For the post-Obama Democrats, there are some big questions. Gay rights issues have generated a lot of energy in the party in the past decade. Where does this go post-Obergefell? Health-care reform has been on the Democratic agenda since the New Deal. Where does the party go after the Affordable Care Act? How do Democrats from various wings of the party contend with the legacy of Obama's presidency? What will they say about mass incarceration, race, inequality, criminal justice reform, police violence?
Foreign policy ought to come up as well. This was one of the major policy differences between Clinton and Obama in 2008, and Obama's stated approach during the first campaign hasn't really been able to sustain his administration through the complex events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Tonight's debate raises questions about democracy within parties
As Chris Hayes noted on Twitter, the exclusion of Larry Lessig, while Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee are included, might seem arbitrary to some. Various party affiliates have been calling for more debates, too. These raise a bunch of difficult but important questions about what it means for a party to be democratic. Open? Accountable? Who counts as a candidate or a party member? What's to be gained by holding more debates?
Debates celebrate legitimate opposition
The theater of debates also reinforces one of the key principles of democracy: the idea of legitimate opposition and disagreement. In other words, debates allow us to see political opponents vigorously contest ideas, look each other in the eye, and shake hands. Things may get heated, and even personal, but political opponents (within the same party, or in different ones) peacefully sharing a stage is a powerful and basic symbol of democratic politics.
In other words, I think the most compelling reasons to tune in tonight concern long-term, big-picture issues. These issues are overlooked all too often, so on balance, I'd say you should probably watch. Democracy requires sacrifice and patience. Even — or especially — when Parks and Recreation is available on Netflix.