The Republican presidential candidates have demonstrated such an appetite for debates that if I set up nine lecterns in my living room on a weeknight around 8 p.m. and chanted “carpet bomb” and “anchor baby,” they’d probably materialize en masse, even before I had time to vacuum and put out the artichoke dip.
But I could send save-the-date cards, promise canapés by Mario Batali and recruit Adele to belt out “Hello” whenever the doorbell rang: Still the Democrats wouldn’t show up.
For all their flaws and fakery, the Republican candidates have squared off frequently, at convenient hours and despite the menacing nimbus of Donald Trump’s hair; the Democratic candidates have, in contrast, hidden in a closet.
Tuesday night’s meeting of Republicans was the fifth. The meeting of Democratic presidential candidates in a few days will be only the third.
And who’s going to watch it? It’s on a Saturday night, when a political debate ranks somewhere between dialysis and a Milli Vanilli tribute concert as a desirable way to unwind.
The previous meeting of the Democratic candidates was also on a Saturday night, and fewer than 9 million viewers tuned in, down from 15.3 million for the sole Democratic debate so far on a weeknight. All of the Republican debates have been on weeknights; the first two attracted more than 23 million viewers each.
In fact none of the first four Republican debates had an audience of less than 13.5 million. The fifth debate averaged 18 million viewers.
The Republican events certainly have seductions that the Democratic ones don’t. But the disparity in viewership is also a function of scheduling, and was thus predictable and obviously intended. When the Democratic debates were set up, party leaders assumed that Hillary Clinton would be their best candidate, put their chips on her and sought to make sure that some upstart didn’t upset their plans or complicate things.
Bernie Sanders complained. Martin O'Malley cried foul. So did a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Tulsi Gabbard. It was an ugly sideshow for a few days, then it blew over.
But we shouldn’t be so quick to forgive and forget how the Democratic Party behaved. It prides itself on being the true champion of democracy. Shouldn’t it want its candidates on vivid, continuous display? Shouldn’t it connect them with the largest audience that it can?
I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more griping about this. What I’ve heard instead is the concern that if Clinton indeed gets the nomination, she'll enter the general election less battle-tested than she’d be if she were facing stiffer primary competition and enduring a greater number of higher-stakes debates.
A politician who’s been through Whitewater, Travelgate, impeachment, an emotional 2008 campaign against Barack Obama and several Benghazi inquisitions doesn’t strike me as someone who needs more battle experience.
The real danger for her is that she’s become all armor.
And a real vulnerability is that she’s seen by voters as entrenched political royalty and thus too distant from everyday Americans.
That’s one of the problems with the Democratic debate schedule: It smacks of special treatment, and Clinton can’t afford to keep giving voters the impression that normal rules don’t apply to her.
And the Democratic Party can’t pretend that it’s done the right thing here. While these debates aren’t as high-minded as we’d wish or as illuminating as we sometimes pretend, they’re an important piece of the puzzle of figuring out candidates. They deserve priority and prominence. Artichoke dip optional.
Frank Bruni writes for the New York Times.