Despite criticism, Democratic Party chair won't budge on number of debates

The Democratic Party will hold six presidential debates, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chair, said Thursday.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, Democratic National Committee Chair, speaks to reporters at a Monitor Breakfast on Thursday, September 10, 2015 in Washington, DC.

The chair of the Democratic National Committee is sticking with her decision for six presidential debates, despite searing criticism from candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders that what they see as a limited number is producing a “rigged” debate system.

Former Maryland Governor O’Malley, an underdog who is registering an average of 2 percent in national polls, has bitterly complained about the debate schedule, which will allow four debates before the early primary states cast their votes, and six total throughout the election cycle.

Senator Sanders (I) of Vermont, who in some polls now leads Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, agrees.

But Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chair, is not budging. “We’re going to have six debates. Period. We’re not changing the process,” she told reporters at a Monitor Breakfast on Thursday.

Her comments came after two DNC vice chairs expressed support for more than six debates.

Wasserman Schultz said she consulted with those who had led the party in election cycles without an incumbent in the presidential race. “I got some good guidance from previous chairs that we make sure that we not let the debate process get out of control,” said Ms. Wasserman Schultz, who is a congresswoman from Florida.

In 2008, she noted, there were “something like 26 debates eventually.” That was not helpful, she said, adding that candidates have to come off the road to get ready. “It’s labor-intensive to prepare for a debate."

Wasserman Schultz also said that six debates with five candidates is proportional to the Republican schedule of nine debates with three in reserve for 17 candidates.

The candidates will have many other forums where they can face one another, including events sponsored by state parties, she said. For example, on Aug. 29, two candidates gathered with other groups in Storm Lake, Iowa, for the Unite Iowa on Immigration Forum.

The first official Democratic debate will be Oct. 13 in Nevada and will be moderated by CNN.

Wasserman Schultz also commented on how the presidential race is shaping up between the two parties. She expressed confidence that the contrast between Democrats and Republicans will overcome whatever money advantage Republicans might have. She described Democrats as running on the "cornerstones" to a middle class life: a living wage, equal pay, affordable health care, a strong roof over one’s head, a good job, and secure retirement.

“The Republicans – all of them – would do horrendous damage to any of those cornerstones,” she said, characterizing Jeb Bush’s newly announced tax plan as straight from his “wheelhouse” of tax cuts for the wealthy.

The “extremism” of Donald Trump, she said, is “basically holding a mirror up to the Republican Party of today,” with some of his competitors rushing to join him on issues such as immigration.

The surge of self-declared democratic socialist Sanders, whose populist message is catching fire and challenging the Clinton campaign, is meanwhile “fantastic” for the party because he’s reaching people, Wasserman Schultz said.

“I think the left is the center of America right now. Not the far left, or the far right, but I think the messages that come from left-of-center, that focus on reaching the cornerstones of a middle-class life, are really where Americans are today.”

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