On Aug. 6, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced the party's debate schedule. It included six dates, of which only four would take place before the critical February primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. Compared to the robust 2008 schedule—when the candidates had already engaged in 10 debates by Sept. 9—it seemed oddly sparse. Nor did the dates themselves make much sense. The first, on Oct. 13, would take place after the New York voter registration deadline, meaning that the state's independents would be too late to vote in the primary if a particular candidate swayed them. The third was scheduled for Dec. 19, the last Saturday before Christmas—a perfect date, provided you wanted nobody to watch.
And there was a bigger problem—although the number of "sanctioned" debates was the same as 2008, the DNC had instituted a strange rule back in May. In what became known as the "exclusivity clause," Schultz dictated that any candidate wishing to participate in the six DNC debates would have to forgo all other debates. In other words, anyone appearing in a non-sanctioned debate, where Clinton and Obama had done battle over and over in 2008, would be barred from the main event—a massive, prohibitive punishment.
The cries of conspiracy started immediately, and gained intensity when the schedule was finally released last month. Debbie Wasserman Schultz had been one of Hillary Clinton's national campaign co-chairs, and Politico recently called her "one of the last loyalists sticking with Clinton in 2008." She had a front row seat as Obama mopped the floor with her candidate in that primary, and perhaps the memory lingered. If nothing else, she knew how the public stage helped Obama overcome a significant early deficit, and was critical to his eventual victory.
Eight years later, Schultz found herself in charge of the debate schedule, and her new rules seemed specifically designed to safeguard Clinton's candidacy. Just as in '08, Clinton began the campaign with a huge lead on her rivals, and Schultz's detractors saw the debate restrictions as evidence of a lesson learned: Deprive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley of publicity and air time, and you protect Hillary from the "next Obama."
Whether this collusion was real or imagined, it was hard not to see the practical benefit to Clinton, and Schultz did herself no favors by staying mum on the rationale for the exclusivity clause. To many, it looked like she had blatantly neutered the debate process, and the ingenuity of her tactics, along with her stubborn silence, only increased the rage.
The candidates themselves protested immediately. Sanders had argued for more debates in a letter to Schultz in June, and he greeted the August announcement with frustration. “I am disappointed, but not surprised, by the debate schedule announced by the Democratic National Committee,” he said.
But it was Martin O'Malley who swung the biggest hammer, railing against the DNC at a campaign stop in Iowa: "To those in Washington who think they can limit the number of debates that we’re going to have before the Iowa caucuses, can circle the wagons and close off debates: I think they’re going to have another thing coming when they talk to the people of Iowa."
And it was O'Malley who brought the rebellion to a new level, dedicating most of his speech at the DNC summer meeting in Minneapolis on Aug. 28 to the topic.
"This sort of rigged process has never been attempted before," he said, at the climax of a 15-minute tirade that brought Debbie Wasserman Schultz into the crosshairs without once mentioning her name. "We are the Democratic Party, not the undemocratic party.
As many Twitter users noticed, the immediate reaction from Schultz was less than warm:
— Elliott Schwartz (@elliosch) August 28, 2015
(Schultz apparently told O'Malley he had no class.)
The topic was broached again during the procedural portion of the meeting, and Schultz reiterated her absolute authority, refusing to let the matter come to a vote. Texas Democratic chair Gilberto Hinojosa later described the farce to a constituent in an email that was posted on Reddit:
I have received numerous emails on this. The matter of the limited debates was brought to the floor of the Democratic National Committee meeting in Minnesota by one of the DNC members. This DNC member made a motion to overturn the decision on the debates. Immediately after he made the motion, another member of the DNC, raised a point of order on the motion. The Chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, sustained the point of order and ruled that the issue of the number of debates and the times of the debates was solely a matter for the Chair to decide and not for the DNC as a body.
Paraphrased: This is my call, and to hell with everyone else.
O'Malley's appearance was effective in galvanizing the rage of his supporters and, more important, Bernie Sanders' supporters. When Schultz sat down with CNN's Jake Tapper for a segment that aired Tuesday, it was the first topic she had to address—in no small part because Tapper had been shoved in that direction by an army of angry advocates on social media. Tapper came out swinging, and posed the question: Will you allow more debates?
See if you can make sense of Schultz's reply, which is worth reprinting in full to showcase the strange, elusive logic:
"Well we're really thrilled that our candidates are coming at our debate process with energy and enthusiasm and looking forward to them. As we established the process that we were going to go through to lead to six debates to have sanctioned debate process so we could make sure that there was some control...it means that we are going to make sure that our candidates are going to commit to participating in DNC-sanctioned debates...one of the bits of advice from a number of my predecessors was that it was important to make sure that the debate calendar doesn't get out of control. It's critical during the campaigning process particularly in the early primary states that our candidates have a chance to be in those retail settings where Iowa voters, New Hampshire voters kick the tires..."
It's almost not worth parsing her response, since it's so obviously a dodge, but let's make a good-faith attempt: Is she saying that the number of debates in 2008 was costly, somehow? It certainly didn't cost the Democrats anything, because, as Tapper pointed out, Obama went on to win the general election. The only person that was truly hurt by the debates was Hillary Clinton, and Schultz watched from the sidelines as her candidate slowly hemorrhaged a huge lead. And maybe that's the entire point—avoiding a repeat of history.
The interview devolved from there. Schultz continued to sidestep all of Tapper's direct questions, as she'd been doing for months, retorting with pointless comebacks like, "debate is not the only way in which you can reach a voter," and refusing to answer the simple question of why. Instead, she reiterated the idea that debates somehow cost the candidates campaigning time—this despite the fact that every single candidate has all but demanded more debates.
Including Hillary Clinton. On Saturday, speaking in New Hampshire, Clinton declared herself open to more debates, saying, "I debated a lot in 2008, and I would certainly be there with lots of enthusiasm and energy if they decide to add more debates. And I think that’s the message that a lot of people are sending their way."
Even if more debates is the exact last thing Clinton wants—and that's a reasonable guess, considering her current lead and the bad memories from '08—she smartly realized that the appearance of a co-conspiracy with Schultz and the DNC was exactly the last thing she needed, particularly when voters already doubt her honesty.
That move deprived Schultz of a key public ally, as did former chair Howard Dean's comment to the Washington Post that he disagreed with the exclusivity clause. But the really shocking twist came on Wednesday, when DNC vice chairs R.T. Rybak and Tulsi Gabbard posted a note on Facebook actually calling for more debates, along with the abolition of the exclusivity clause:
"We believe that the DNC’s decision to limit Presidential candidates to 6 debates, with a threat of exclusion for any candidate who participates in any non-DNC sanctioned debate, is a mistake. It limits the ability of the American people to benefit from a strong, transparent, vigorous debate between our Presidential candidates, as they make the important decision of who will be our Democratic Presidential nominee."
Rybak and Gabbard are two of the nine chief officers listed on the DNC's website, and these felt very much like the first rumblings of a palace coup. Since then, all parties are doubling down—O'Malley has outright accused Schultz, by name, of rigging the process for Hillary Clinton, and Schultz has refused to move an inch. Now, she's totally isolated at the top, taking flack not just from struggling outsiders in the presidential race, but from her own organization. What meager support existed in her own party has withered, and the debate restrictions stand exposed for what they are: A unilateral decision utterly lacking in justification. The only question that remains is whether Schultz can barricade herself inside the castle walls, withstand the heightened scrutiny, and survive until February.