Politics

Tom Perez Needs to Man Up

May 29, 2019
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But wait! There's more! (Illustration by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages)

Debate me, you coward! You, too! And you and you and you and you and you!

We’re a month from the first tranche of Democratic debates in Miami. Florida has not been good to the Democratic party, but I’m sure this time will be different. Besides the obvious appeal of alligators and meth, there’s nothing quite as delicious as summer in the tropics.

And it’s hard not to notice the very obvious differences from the last primary cycle. For one thing, instead of a race between two people and the guy who was a character on The Wire, we have binders full of candidates.

How many? As of this writing, we have 23 declared candidates—and that’s after a whole slew of kind-of, sort-of pols tip-toed up to the water’s edge before pulling back. You might think 23 is a lot—it’s probably 15 too many, to be honest—but we could easily have been at 28 if Stacey Abrams, Sherrod Brown, Mike Bloomberg, Eric Garcetti, and Deval Patrick had run. And all of them took good, hard looks at the race.

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This bumper crop of candidates is going to require that the Democratic National Committee do things a little differently. This time, they’re not with her, or him, or anyone, and this time they’re not going to let their emails get hacked by the Ruskies and released by the albino rapist who lives in the cupboard under the stairs. No sirree. They’re going to things totally differently this time.

And the first step is presenting all of these luscious candidates to voters in the best, most logical manner possible. So the DNC is bending over backward to create the most fair, inclusive, respectful, diverse, and enormous debate stage ever. The DNC will not have a kids’ table, unlike the GOP’s 2016 debate.

It’s to the DNC’s credit that they have been incredibly transparent about how to get into the debates. And it’s actually pretty easy. Maybe even too easy. Okay, real talk: It’s definitely too easy. For example if you have a full Subway rewards card, you can choose a spot in the debates or a free sub. As of right now there are approximately one trillion people qualified to be in the debates, including a small-town Midwestern mayor, the congresswoman from Hawaii, and a retired tech guy. Because God is just, wise, and hilarious, the mayor of New York City (and noted groundhog slayer) has not yet qualified.

But the truth is, there really are going to be way too many candidates onstage to make the debates anything other than a clusterfuck of clusterfuckery. Right now, you can qualify for the debate by either having 65,000 people to donate to you, or by polling over 1 percent in three DNC-approved polls. But all of that may change, and in fact it has! As I was working on this piece the DNC announced a new rule change in which candidates polling over 2 percent will be randomly allocated between the two debates, so as to prevent from having a kids’ table.

I know what you’re thinking: Wait a minute. Most polls have a margin of error around +/-4 points. Which means that any candidate polling under 4 percent is basically within the margin of error and that pretending that there’s any meaningful statistical difference between a candidate at 1 percent and a candidate at 2 percent is kind of mathematically illiterate.

But wait, there’s more: The DNC also decided that the total participation will be capped at 20. Which means that three of the major (“major”?) candidates won’t be invited.

And here’s where it gets positively bananas: The Hill says that 19 people have already qualified. The pointy-heads at FiveThirtyEight figures that the real number is 20. (Even people who do this for a living can’t keep it all perfectly straight.) But everyone agrees that one of the people sure to be onstage will be Marianne Williamson. Whom you may remember from her role as officiant at Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding. Or as besties with Oprah. Or from being a spiritual advisor to Cher. (Reminder: Bill de Blasio, the current mayor of New York City, will not make the debates. But Marianne Williamson will. Just sit with that for a moment.)

So, what happens now? Well, if anyone else qualifies, then the DNC will put into effect its hastily drawn-up tiebreak rules.

Here’s FiveThirtyEight trying valiantly to explain them:

If more than 20 candidates qualify under the first set of debate rules, then meeting both the polling and donor requirements will become very important—candidates who do so will get first dibs on debate lecterns. After that, though, things start to get complicated.

If more than 20 candidates hit both the polling and donor thresholds, the 20 candidates with the highest polling average would be included in the debate. . . .

If fewer than 20 candidates meet both standards but more than 20 qualify via the polling method, those who meet both criteria would qualify first and the remaining spots would be filled by those with the highest polling average. To calculate this, the DNC is planning to average the top three survey results for each candidate, rounded to the nearest tenth of a percentage point. That is, the tiebreaker will be calculated using the polls where a candidate performed best, not necessarily the most recent polls. If that average results in a tie for the last spot(s) on the stage, the tied candidates will be ranked by the total number of qualifying polls they submitted to the DNC.

However, if fewer than 20 candidates hit both qualifying criteria and fewer than 20 qualify via the polling method, the DNC and its media partners (NBC and Telemundo in June and CNN in July) would first invite all candidates who reach both the polling and donor thresholds and then any others who meet the polling requirement. After that, the remaining debate slots would be filled by those who have the highest number of unique donors.

Seems simple enough. I’m sure Democrats across this great land of ours will see the wisdom and fairness in DNC chairman Tom Perez’ plan.

Or, as a consultant for one of the Democratic campaigns put it, “Tom Perez is such a goddamned weenie.”

In fairness to Perez, being chairman of the DNC right now might be the worst job in America. Because realistically speaking, what is he supposed to do with these debates?

It’s easy to say that Mike Gravel shouldn’t be on the debate stage, because he’s 89, he’s a former senator from Alaska, he’s not doing events, and his “campaign” is basically a stalking horse for a bunch of really adorable anti-war teenagers.

And it’s easy to say that the big five—Biden, Bernie, Mayor Pete, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris—should be in.

And it’s comparatively easy to say that the next tier of serious candidates with actual campaigns—Cory Booker and Beto—should be there.

After that? If the rest of the field was comprised of just Hickenlooper, Gillibrand, and Inslee, you’d just say, Fine. Come on in.

But it’s not just those three. It’s those three plus thirteen other people. All of whom pretty much live in the same tiny sliver within the margin of error.

And because the Democratic National Committee is killing itself to show maximum transparency, it doesn’t want to be seen as thumbing the scales against Mean Amy or the Groundhog Slayer or Mr. Clean.

And look, maybe the DNC is right not to. Maybe the insane 17-level tiebreaker system won’t actually matter because no one down at that end of the spectrum is going to end up as the nominee, anyway.

But on the other hand, as Chris Christie showed, a skilled, motivated loser is perfectly capable of mortally wounding a real contender on a debate stage.

At some point, Perez might have to start thinking less about hurting the feelings of the people who aren’t going to be his party’s nominee, and more about advancing the prospects of the people who might be.

Molly Jong-Fast

Molly Jong-Fast is a contributor to The Bulwark and the author of three books. Follow her on Twitter @MollyJongFast.