Frustrating boisterous climate activists, Democratic Party leaders declined on Thursday to call for a presidential primary debate focused on the climate crisis, but tinkered ever-so-slightly with restrictions on what kind of single-issue events their White House hopefuls can attend.
The moves played out in an unruly gathering of the Democratic National Committee’s Resolution Committee at the party’s summer meeting in California, with scores of activists singing, chanting and yelling during a discussion that revealed internal DNC frustrations over debates so far and uncertainty over just how Democrats should tackle a challenge as grave as the climate crisis.
“This is a terribly frightening, existential crisis that demands a different course of action,” said Muriel MacDonald, an organizer for the Sunrise Movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. “If we play by the old rules, we are going to suffer terribly.”
Party Chairman Tom Perez shows no signs of wanting to rewrite the debate rules midstream. Yet it’s clear that the grassroots action — supported by some DNC members — has rattled party leaders who argue that the debate structure for the 2020 primaries is a settled matter.
The discussion Thursday came a day after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ended his presidential bid that he’d hinged on a pledge to make climate action the nation’s top priority. Inslee was able to attract more than 130,000 individual donors — the mark the DNC set as one qualifying metric for the September debate stage. But Inslee was well shy of an additional requirement to hit 2% support in at least four national or early nominating state polls from reputable pollsters.
Inslee had repeatedly called on Perez to dedicate a DNC-sponsored debate to climate action.
Perez has stuck by his earlier decision not to hold “single-issue” debates, instead planning at least a dozen debates, six in 2019 and at least six in 2020, in partnership with television networks. The third of that series is set for Sept. 12 and potentially Sept. 13 if enough candidates qualify.
Perez has argued that he wants the broadest audiences possible to see Democratic candidates discuss a wide range of issues. His aides also note that the party has received separate requests for single-issue debates on civil rights, guns, poverty and issues affecting older Americans.
Additionally, the party has barred its candidates from attending any non-DNC sponsored debate, which the chairman defines as candidates interacting on the same stage at the same time.
The DNC instead has encouraged other groups to hold issue-based forums where candidates appear one at a time for more extended discussions with moderators. Powerful organizations such as the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO have hosted such events. CNN, which hosted Democrats’ July debates, has scheduled a climate town hall for Sept. 4, with at least 10 candidates expected to appear separately.
The party’s Resolution Committee adopted on Thursday a statement that encourages candidates to participate in “multicandidate” forums with candidates on the same stage. That could, however, meet Perez’s definition of a “debate,” and thus run afoul of existing rules barring candidates from such events not sanctioned by the party.
Washington state Democratic Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski, an Inlsee ally who pushed for a climate debate, criticized the first round of Democratic debates as television affairs that devolve into soundbites and sniping, without policy substance.
“We can fix this process,” Podlodowski said, adding that climate action isn’t actually “single-issue” at all, because it involves economic policy, health care, jobs and infrastructure.
Symone Sanders, a Resolutions Committee member who now works for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, echoed concerns over the lack of depth in debates. But she said it’s too late to rewrite the rules. “Frankly, that is a conversation we should have had last summer,” Sanders said.
Others noted that the candidates themselves asked the DNC to manage the debate and forum process because campaigns were getting too many requests for their time and had neither a diplomatic way to say no nor a reasonable way to prioritize invitations.
There was less agreement on the political ramifications of a climate debate.
Jim Zogby, a progressive who has sometimes criticized Perez, said a climate crisis debate is necessary to show younger voters that the Democratic Party prioritizes the issue that millennials consistently place at or near the top of their list of concerns.
But Josh Boschee, a DNC member from heavily Republican North Dakota, said Democrats must be careful in discussing sweeping climate policies like the Green New Deal if they want to win over rural voters who could tip the scales in some presidential battlegrounds.
“I’m in a place where many voters actually do share our values,” Boschee said. “They just don’t know it.”