The Dominant, Misguided Power of Presidential Primary Debates

The Dominant, Misguided Power of Presidential Primary Debates

Jay Inslee entered the presidential race for the right reasons, and he made a profound difference by moving the Democratic field to recognize the extent of the climate crisis and the need for bold solutions. He should be applauded for his effort.

The bigger thing to say about his exit, along with the other winnowing we’ve seen this week, is that debates have become this all-consuming element of presidential primary politics in our reality-show age, in a way that wasn’t true just a few years ago. There was more than one reason why Inslee, Hicklenlooper, and Seth Moulton bowed out this week—all of them faced practical and literal deadlines to run for other offices—but realistically speaking, they knew that missing the next set of debates was the effective end of their campaigns, so they took off. The entire campaign this summer has been framed around who will make the debates, what will happen in the debates, and what did happen in the debates.

Maybe that would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that the debates have been abjectly terrible. Created by game show hosts with no understanding of substance, they’ve been consumed with trying to get candidates to fight with one another instead of what they might be able to accomplish in office. They’re produced as wrestling matches instead of key channels for distributing information to voters, there are way too many people on stage, and the top candidates are separated. Voters are receiving the opposite of information.

This happened really quickly. The 2008 primary debates were not the driving force behind the dynamics of the race, which changed on things like Obama’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa or John McCain’s comeback in South Carolina. In 2012, Mitt Romney pretty much never shined in debates and managed to win. But 2012 did provide the clown car spectacle that reached its apotheosis on the GOP side in 2016. Bernie, blessed with several one-on-one showdowns with Hillary Clinton, probably hung in there against the odds because of his debate performances. Today, debates have become the front door for presidential politics.

Some of this is a function of the historically large field. But I’m not sure there should even be debates until late fall, before the first primaries. Otherwise longer shots have no chance to succeed. Performance in a game show should not dictate the choices available for voters for chief executive.



The Federal Trade Commission won’t get tough on Big Tech, because its staff views tech lobbyists as trusted partners.

Elizabeth Warren knows how to work the political system, by identifying ways to make progress on the inside, and then focusing relentlessly on achieving them.

Warren and Sanders returned donations from individuals tied to hedge funds with investments in Puerto Rican debt.



Fantastic Alex Sammon piece about the two major dialysis companies spending $100 million to lobby on one state legislative bill that would cut into their profits.

Gabrielle Gurley on the looming Joe Kennedy/Ed Markey primary battle in Massachusetts.

Two from Marcia Brown on the failed attempt to get the DNC to host a climate debate.

Derrick Jackson on how the Trump administration is changing the nation’s dietary guidelines.



I was on America’s Work Force Radio talking about a number of stories. Listen here.



The Business Roundtable’s statement that companies have obligations to more than shareholders is funny, considering that two months earlier they sent a comment to the Securities and Exchange Commission asking for a rule change to preserve “long-term shareholder value.” (Common Dreams)

Top judicial advocacy group wants an end to Democratic judge nominees from corporate law firms. (The Atlantic)

Banks get a huge win as the Volcker rule is effectively dead. (Politico)

Always read Steve Randy Waldmann, this one on “predatory precarity.” (Interfluidity)

Facebook’s “clear history” tool doesn’t clear history. (WaPo)

Trump proposes blatantly illegal indefinite migrant detention rule. (Axios)

Jason Linkins savages the coming Mark Halperin book. (New Republic)

Commodity Futures Trading Commission makes a deal with Kraft to hide information about a settlement, then releases the information anyway, triggering a lawsuit from Kraft. *headdesk* (Financial Times)

Planned Parenthood going it alone without federal funds. (LA Times)

First manufacturing sector contraction in a decade. (CNBC)

How Amazon and Silicon Valley seduced the Pentagon. (Pro Publica)

When Dean Baker begins to sound the alarm on the economy, listen. (Beat the Press)

Sustainably fracked.” (Wall Street Journal)

Area idiot cabinet member Rick Perry falls for Internet hoax. (Splinter)