Get the Fringe Presidential Hopefuls Off the Debate Stage
The Democratic Party needs to stop wasting time on vanity candidates
October 15 is coming up — and that means another clown car of a Democratic presidential primary debate. Twelve candidates will take the stage in Ohio, it was announced on Tuesday of last week, among them Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, and Tulsi Gabbard. Meeting the donation and polling thresholds for the debate is undoubtedly a win for their respective campaigns — but it’s a failure for the Democratic Party, and a symptom of a worsening problem within the two-party system that has begun to deeply damage American democracy.
Simply put: The guardrails have come off the intraparty presidential nominating process, foisting candidates who are unqualified to govern or out of step with the core values of their parties into the mainstream of American life. It’s bad enough when these vanity and fringe candidates simply lose, but as the election of the unqualified, ideologically incoherent Donald Trump shows: It’s even worse when they win.
Instead of effectively addressing this problem — and in the face of one of the most urgent political moments in half a century — the Democratic Party is frittering away its opportunity to clearly define itself and showcase its leading candidates before the public. Democratic voters have space and time to vet only a limited number of would-be presidents. And while it’s true that Yang has introduced some interesting ideas into the primary campaign, such as universal basic income, he’s a tech entrepreneur who has never served in elected office and has zero governing experience. Neither does Steyer, a billionaire hedge-fund manager whose entire political resume has been as a Democratic donor. To make matters worse, Tulsi Gabbard — a Hawaii congresswoman who has flirted with the far-right — also qualified. Nine other Democrats will be stuffed onto the screen with them. This is no way to pick a nominee.
You can already hear the howls of the Yang Gang, the Tulsi stans, and Steyer (a fandom of one): “The establishment is silencing us! You’re afraid of the authentic voice of the people!” But nobody wants to cut popular input from the primary process altogether. Democrats changed their nomination system in 1972 to give more power to voters and open up the process. Barack Obama probably wouldn’t have won the nomination if they hadn’t.
How can Democrats avoid lending their prestige and their imprimatur to dilettantes or grifters?
It’s worth considering now, though, whether the openness and reforms of the ’70s haven’t begun — nearly half a century on — to lead to bad outcomes for both major political parties and the country itself. Party endorsements are a promise to voters that nominees are qualified to govern and share the party’s goals and values. When the Republican Party nominated Trump, it was affirming that he was a man who had the skills and temperament to hold high office, and who would take his oath to the Constitution seriously. By endorsing someone who was unfit, it was essentially deceiving voters. Today when Democrats treat a Yang or Steyer as legitimate candidates by letting them get up on a debate stage and burble, it is also misleading voters. And it’s paving the way for the eventual rise of a Democratic nominee who is unqualified, doesn’t support the party’s values, or both.
So how can Democrats avoid lending their prestige and their imprimatur to dilettantes or grifters who want to use a national campaign as a way to gratify their egos, promote their brands, sell books, or get television gigs? So far, the Democrats have tried to weed out weak candidates using access to debates. Each debate has escalating requirements for polling and number of donors. (Republicans used polling alone as a qualification in 2016, effectively turning the job search for America’s chief executive into a ratings drive.)
The debate thresholds have in fact pushed some of the hordes of Democratic candidates to bow out. Iowans sick of forking Democratic hopefuls out of their hay bales every morning are grateful. But while polling and donor numbers have thinned out the field, both are metrics of popularity, not of qualifications. Not surprisingly, the Democrats have had only sporadic success in eliminating unqualified candidates.
But who needs governing experience and a record of public service when you have lots of social media followers and/or enough money to buy every unsuspecting hog in a small early primary state? Steyer, after missing out on the debates in September, has managed to use his massive wealth to buy himself a seat on the stage, spending tens of millions of dollars to increase his name recognition. Gabbard was in, then out, and is now back in. Yang has managed to parlay internet renown and a couple of borrowed ideas into a small but persistent constituency.
There are some relatively easy fixes for winnowing the field, ways of turning the presidential primary process back into a party-vetting mechanism designed to nominate the person most qualified to both campaign and govern, in sync with each party’s historic mandate. For instance, parties could require debate participants to release 10 years of tax returns — a stipulation that might discourage flagrant bad actors like Trump, who don’t want their finances scrutinized, along with other extremely wealthy individuals. They could also refuse to let anyone debate who hasn’t held a significant elected office. Or, as Elaine C. Kamarck of the Brookings Institution suggests, they could consider a preprimary vote of confidence, wherein a candidate’s ability to participate in a debate would depend on a “yes” vote from the party’s national committee.
As a less centralized alternative, parties could require candidates to receive a minimum threshold of endorsements from party officeholders or committee members. Even a very low threshold for endorsements would winnow out most fringe candidates. Currently, Yang, Steyer, and Gabbard have no major endorsements, and would therefore be excluded from the debates. In contrast, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney all received at least one endorsement. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has spent much of his career as an independent, has a good number of endorsements too, thanks to his conventional qualifications for the presidency and deep connections within Democratic Party networks.
Excluding wild-card candidates might make debate nights duller. But after Trump, I hope we can all agree that a little more boredom in our politics is no bad thing.