Burning down the party

The Amazon is burning. July was the hottest month in recorded history. And the scientific consensus is that the world has little more than a decade to avert catastrophic global warming

The leaders of the Democratic Party, however, are worried about giving the issue of climate change too much attention. 

On Saturday, members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted 222 to 137 "to reject a resolution that would have effectively allowed the party's presidential candidates to hold a debate dedicated solely to climate change." Instead, the DNC wants candidates only to participate in climate-focused discussions at forums where candidates appear one at a time -- events that tend to attract far fewer viewers. 

The push for a climate debate has been lead by the Sunrise Movement, a group of youth activists concerned about the future of the planet. They also reflect the broader views of Democratic primary voters. A June poll found that 73% of Democrats thought it was "very important" that the candidates discuss climate change during the debates. (In the debates held so far, climate change has only been a topic of discussion for a few minutes.) It is the number two issue overall among Democrats, trailing only health care. All the major candidates, including Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Harris, have publicly supported a climate debate.

The DNC rejected the views of young grassroots activists, rank-and-file Democrats, and all the leading Democratic presidential candidates. But it is not the end of the story. Democratic candidates, with just a bit of political courage, can still hold a debate dedicated to the critical issue of global warming. 

Corporate influence at the DNC 

Every leading Democratic presidential candidate has pledged to reject corporate PAC money and donations of over $200 from fossil fuel executives. (The exceptions are all polling at less than 1%.) This consensus reflects a desire among Democratic voters for a candidate who is not beholden corporate interests, particularly corporations that are blocking action to curb global warming. 

But while Democratic candidates have rejected corporate and fossil fuel money, the same is not true of DNC members. There are numerous members of the DNC who work for lobbying firms, including those that represent the fossil fuel industry. 

One of the delegates opposing the resolution to allow for a climate debate is Maria Cardona. "It will take away time from their knocking on doors, going to all of your states to be able to campaign," Cardona said. 

Cardona is a principal at Dewey Square Group, a DC "public affairs" and lobbying firm. Dewey Square represents fossil fuel companies. In 2017, for example, Dewey Square was paid $800,000 by FirstEnergy Solutions, a now-bankrupt utility company that operates coal plants, to support a bill in Ohio that would "effectively kill Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards." Since Dewey Square generally operates such that it does not have to disclose its clients publicly, it is unknown who Dewey Square represents now. 

The DNC itself has accepted at least $60,750 from fossil fuel executives since January. A member of the DNC leadership, Associate Chairman Jaime Harrison, is a former lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry who worked to oppose the Obama administration's Clean Power plan.

Why does the DNC get to decide what candidates can debate? 

The candidates don't need permission from the DNC or anyone else to debate global warming or any other issue. The DNC has attempted to "take control" of the debate process by officially sanctioning 12 debates -- about one per month through April 2020 -- and threatening to exclude anyone who participates in any other debates. 

Why is the DNC limiting the number of debates? 

The DNC says that it is limiting the number of primary debates to provide more structure to the process and protect the candidates from an unending stream of requests. But the DNC's effort to severely restrict the number of debates is relatively new. 

In the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination, the last contested Democratic primary that resulted in a Democratic president, there were 26 debates, including four in August 2007 and four in September 2007. This year there are no debates in August and just one in September. 

There are several advantages to holding more debates. Candidates still end up spending most of their fundraising dollars on TV advertising. Debates are typically watched by millions of people, giving candidates the ability to spread their message for free. (The first two Democratic debate this year drew a combined 50 million viewers.) Perhaps more importantly, each debate gives candidates a chance to hone their message and respond to attacks. Obama was seen as a fairly weak debater in the early debates of the 2008 campaign, but by the time he reached the general election, he had improved greatly. More debates could help the Democratic field, many of whom are running for the president for the first time. 

DNC chair Tom Perez and others warned that if they allowed a climate debate, they would be forced to hold debates "on civil rights, guns, poverty and issues affecting older Americans." The horror!

Who benefits from fewer debates

Limiting debates generally only helps one candidate: the frontrunner. Each debate provides an opportunity to make a big mistake that damages your candidacy or to create a powerful moment that propels it. If you are already leading the primary, debates provide your opponents with a high-profile opportunity to change the political dynamics. In 2016, in an effort to protect frontrunner Hillary Clinton, the DNC schedule just six debates. This didn't work. 

For the 2020 campaign, limiting the number of debates benefits Biden and hurts the rest of the field. Symone Sanders, a DNC member and Biden advisor, said she opposed a climate debate. Sanders later said she was speaking for herself and not the Biden campaign. (Biden said in July that he supported holding a climate debate.)

While limiting debates helps the frontrunner, it does not help the party overall. More debates increase the chance the party ends up with the strongest candidates. Presidential campaigns are long. Every candidate will be tested eventually. To end up with the best candidate, it is in the party's interest to test all of them sooner rather than later.  

How Democrats could hold a climate debate anyway

The DNC's threat to exclude any candidate from future debates can work against one candidate. It cannot work against all of them. If the top three candidates in the polls -- Biden, Sanders, and Warren -- all announced that they would participate in an upcoming debate on climate, the DNC would not exclude them from future debates. 

On September 4, ten Democrats will appear at a "Climate Crisis Town Hall" sponsored by CNN. The plan now is for them to appear on stage one at a time. What would happen if they all came on stage together and held a debate?

Congressman Tim Ryan, a presidential candidate with little traction in the polls, said the DNC's vote should be ignored. "The DNC got it wrong. We need a climate debate," Ryan said. 

Beto O'Rourke, while not explicitly calling for a climate debate, called the vote "baffling" and "alarming."


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