If the Democrats want their nominating convention to descend into chaos and result in a disastrous split, I’d say they are making all the right decisions. If they want to bring a united and confident organization into the 2020 battle with the GOP and President Trump, however, they are botching things badly.
The ethics issues at play here are fairness and competence.
The Democratic National Committee now says that the next debate, finally a head-to-head showdown between socialist Bernie Sanders and whatever-he-is-at-the-moment Joe Biden, will have both candidates seated as they take unplanned <cough!>questions from undecided voters in the audience, unlike the previous debates which had the candidates challenged by questions from professional journalist moderators while standing behind podiums for hours.
Brilliant! What could go wrong? Except that some in the Bernie Sanders camp are convinced that the format has been deliberately engineered to minimize the exposure of Joe Biden, who appears to be aging as quickly as poor Walter Donovan after he chooses the wrong chalice in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
“Why does Joe Biden not want to stand toe-to-toe with Sen. Sanders on the debate stage March 15 and have an opportunity to defend his record and articulate his vision for the future?” asks Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ senior adviser, quoted in Politico.
Biden’s campaign and the DNC say the format for the debate was decided by the party along with CNN, which will host it, and the news network referred questions back to the DNC. The problem for both is the lack of any credibility whatsoever. The DNC was infamously dwelling in Hillary Clinton’s metaphorical pocket in 2016, putting its elbow on the scales in any way it could get away with (and several ways it could not) to ensure Hillary’s coronation, and now is widely believed to condider Bernie’s nomination a looming disaster. CNN, of course, is the anti-Trump network, and has similar concerns. Nobody in their right minds should believe the protestations of either CNN or the DNC as they say, “Who, us? How could anyone suspect us of wanting anything but a fair debate conferring no advantage on either candidate? How dare you!”
Naturally, the Biden camp has its lines down. “We will participate in whatever debate CNN chooses to stage: standing, sitting, at podiums, or in a town hall,” Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said. “The problem for the Sanders campaign is not the staging of the debate, but rather, the weakness of Sen. Sanders’ record and ideas.”
Good one! Do you believe it?
Here’s the other problem: none of the past debates this time—what have there been, 50 of them?—had any resemblance to real debates, Kennedy-Nixon style. On a stage with so many competitors (the smallest number so far has been six), a candidate’s exposure is minimal. Even in a three hour marathon, including commercial breaks, questions and interruptions and assuming relatively even distribution of time, each candidate gets no more than ten minutes an hour of exposure, a handicap for masters of logorrhea like Elizabeth Warren, but a boon for a candidate like Biden—has there ever been a candidate like Biden?–who is prone to incoherent outbursts like the “struggling actor” in that Liberty Mutual ad who gets dubbed after saying “Liberty Bibberty.”
There is nothing wrong with trying different formats, of course. The first use of the town meeting format, which also allowed candidates to sit if they liked and wander the stage, famously exposed President George H.W. Bush’s seeming boredom with the chore of campaigning, as he was caught glancing at his watch to see when the damn thing would be over. Furthermore, there will presumably be no rule forcing a candidate to stay seated. If 78 year-old Sanders stands and moves around, bad heart and all, 77-year old Waldorf—I’m sorry, Biden-–would be ill-advised to stay in his chair.
My guess is that the DNC and CNN were not trying to rig the debate to help Joe Biden, but are victims of their already squandered credibility, especially the DNC after the pro-Hillary machinations of Donna Brazile and the awful Debby Wasserman Schultz in 2016. They both have, however, unnecessarily and ineptly courted the appearance of impropriety, which the Sanders team is predictably exploiting. This format would have seemed more innocent after at least one, old-fashioned, head to head, moderator-centered debate…assuming it wasn’t marred by any Biden Liberty Bibberties.