Democratic presidential primary debates run the risk of becoming an “embarrassment” following the exit of two candidates and the refusal thus far to allow Lawrence Lessig onto the stage, supporters of the would-be campaign finance reformer said Friday.
A decision by former Sen. Jim Webb to step away from the race Wednesday was replicated Friday by former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The moves, accompanied by a decision by Vice President Joe Biden not to throw his hat in the ring, means that just four Democrats will vie for the party nod.
But only three — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — have so far been granted the opportunity to shine in televised debates that are key to raising profiles and laying out platforms.
It leaves Lessig as the only Democratic hopeful to be excluded from the stage, and with two additional lecterns now vacated, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and upcoming debate host CBS will likely face pressure from his supporters to place him in the next debate, scheduled for Nov. 14.
Senior campaign advisor Steve Jarding said in a statement to Al Jazeera that Chafee’s departure from the race is “even more evidence that Larry Lessig should be in the next debates."
“He raised more money than did Jim Webb or Lincoln Chafee, he has qualified for federal matching funds already, he has been running a significant television ad buy in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the DNC still excludes him — even though they included Webb and Chafee in the debates before they dropped out,” said Jarding. “It seems that the goal of the DNC is to have Hillary debate herself, and that is an embarrassment to our party, and to this process."
Calls to grant Lessig a debate podium have grown only louder since he was excluded from the first televised face-off. The day before that debate, Bloomberg View’s editorial board declared that Lessig “deserves to be onstage.” This Wednesday, not long after Webb announced he was no longer pursuing the Democratic nomination, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart echoed that sentiment.
A MoveOn.org poll urging DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to grant Lessig a place on the debate stage currently has more than 3,000 signatures.
Lessig is running on a platform dedicated almost solely to election reform, and rectifying what the candidate often describes in speeches as a "broken" democratic process. As president, he says it would fight to pass a "Citizen Equality Act" that would provide for public funding of political campaigns, redraw Congressional districts, and remove barriers to voting.
Under the rules for the first debate, the only Democratic candidates who qualified were those who garnered at least one percent support in three national polls over the prior six weeks. Lessig has polled at one percent in two recent surveys; but many polling firms simply don’t include him among their list of candidates, much to the Lessig campaign’s frustration.
“This experience has led me to believe it’s not just the rules that discourage an outside Democrat,” wrote Lessig in a recent op-ed for Politico. “It’s also the party."
The DNC has scarcely acknowledged Lessig’s existence. Wasserman Schultz pointedly left him out of a Friday speech to the Women’s Leadership Forum that listed the ways in which the other four Democratic candidates — including Chafee, who announced he was dropping out of the race at the same forum — “walk the walk on a number of issues important to women and families.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera earlier this month, Lessig acknowledged there is “no campaign” unless he could get into one of the first two debates.
“This is a serious campaign, yet it’s an outsider’s campaign, and the challenge for an outsider’s campaign is to force the insider to let us onstage,” said Lessig. “And so far they’ve not allowed us to be on that stage."