WASHINGTON — Just before Thanksgiving last year, without much fanfare, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia launched an exploratory committee for the presidency of the United States. Against a deep blue backdrop, Webb laid out a case for his brand of leadership and detailed his public service in the Senate, as an officer in the Marine Corps, and at the Department of Defense.
“Each time,” he said, “I served not with the expectation of making government a career, but to continue to the good of the country during a period of crisis or great change.”
Webb became the first major name on either side to make his designs on the White House so publicly known and he has largely maintained a low profile since. But a spokesperson for the 68-year-old Democrat said there was no immediate plan in place for a crucial exercise in the primary process: the Democratic debate program.
“Actually, we’ve had no discussions internally or externally about debates,” Webb spokesperson Craig Crawford said in an email to BuzzFeed News. “Will cross that bridge when we see it.”
Webb’s exploratory committee is currently the closest thing to a challenge to Hillary Clinton’s expected, but yet-to-be-announced campaign. The thinned-out presidential field presents an obvious, but murky question: What exactly is the Democratic Party going to do about presidential debates?
The DNC says publicly that it’s not worried about the dearth of candidates leading up to the election and that, instead, it’s focused on inclusion of the debate’s stakeholders: the networks, the candidates, and their surrogates.
“This is not a candidate-driven process,” DNC spokesperson Mo Elleithee said in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “It’s a process-driven process. Having said that, it’s why we’re talking to everyone to try and get the buy-in on the front end, so that when the time comes we can pull the trigger and it’ll work. We want to put together a debate program that helps the process of selecting our nominee.”
Six years ago, the field was crowded with big ticket names, including then Sens. Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Edwards, and Clinton herself. The candidates took part in more than two-dozen debates that many Democrats believed left the last two candidates standing — Clinton and Obama — unnecessarily battered for the general election.
Elleithee added there will almost certainly be fewer debates, but did not have a number or offer a range. It’s in direct contrast to the strategy pursued by the RNC, which announced a nine-debate from August 2015 through March 1, 2016. The schedule is complete with sites, partnering networks, and approximate dates.
In addition to Webb, the next strongest potential contender is former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who on Tuesday removed himself from bottleneck of names vying for the Senate seat that will be vacated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski in 2016. An O’Malley spokesperson declined comment for this story.
Debates play a critical role in the process — candidates can advance a national profile, and a party can redefine or test core principles with multiple candidates. The former and current Democratic Party officials that spoke with BuzzFeed News during the DNC Winter Meetings earlier this month shared an optimistic, but slightly untraditional view of the party’s locus heading into the second quarter: With the current field, they said, Clinton would coast to the Democratic nomination with her entire war chest and few to no scars, even if she did not test her mettle against a Democratic rival that might improve her stamina against the Republican candidate.
“When you have a primary and you’re spending tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars competing against your brethren, you’ve got to redo all of that and compete against the Republican,” John Wisniewski, a Democratic New Jersey lawmaker and former state party chair told BuzzFeed News. “When you don’t have that kind of primary process you have the ability to save those resources. The downside in all of that is that is there’s less of an opportunity to test-market your views and develop your team early on because there’s no challenge.”
Elleithee thinks the RNC’s straight-into-your-living room blueprint is too archaic when companies like Facebook will help drive information, analysis, and data to voters.
The RNC did not immediately respond to a message asking for comment.
“I think the days are over when a network throws a debate on television, promotes the heck out of it and expects people to come watch it,” he said. “That’s part of it. But at the same time people are getting their information differently. They’re not watching live television the way they used to. People are getting more of their information digitally… They’re not watching entire shows or programs anymore, they’re watching snippets that are important to them.”
Elleithee said he’s less interested in people watching entire debates. Part of the DNC’s approach is working on on-demand programming that will allow viewers to pick and choose what they want to see. But he said the DNC is not in negotiations yet. Instead it’s creating a collaborative method for networks, news organizations, and special interest groups to work with likely candidates.
“As we get a better sense of when and how our field takes shape, then I think there will be some more clarity and we’ll start to make some decisions that we hope will work for everybody,” Elleithee said.