Witcover: Get ready for another overcrowded round of candidate debates

Apparently on the theory that one bad turn deserves another, the next Democratic National Committee round of 2020 presidential candidate debates in July will again be held on two consecutive nights, with 10 contenders taking the stage at one time.

Included again will be two distinct outsiders in politics — inspirational speaker Marianne Williamson and technology guru Andrew Yang. Each survived the cut by acquiring 1 percent support in three public opinion polls and 65,000 individual donors. At least 10 of the other qualifiers are politicos of very modest recognition in the world of Oval Office wannabees.


These others have reasonable grounds for inclusion and could survive when the DNC imposes a higher yardstick of 2 percent backing for joining later debate rounds. But the overall spectacle of everybody but your uncle in the gaggle risks reducing the exercise to farce.

There was a time when only the most accomplished or at least well-known Americans offered themselves for the nation's highest office, and were afforded a stage for serious consideration. They emerged from the ranks after lengthy service in party councils that gave them potential presidential stature.


But this political season's Democratic scorecard of White House aspirants may tax the patience and possibly the interest as well of ordinary voters. One obvious reason for the epidemic of candidates is the dominant role of television in today's political process. Networks and cable outlets shell out millions of dollars of free air time eagerly gobbled up by these opportunists.

Furthermore, the showcase of so many candidates minimizes and even obliterates what political debates ought to be: direct confrontation between each other on the prime issues of the day, from which voters can make informed judgments.

It was interesting to note that the highlight of last week's second multi-candidate event was the actual dialogue between two of them, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Vice President Joe Biden. She deftly managed to buck the format of moderators posing all the questions by actually debating Mr. Biden directly over his early opposition to school busing.

Throwing him on the defensive and thus elevating her own candidacy in what was a true moment of actual debate, she made a clear argument for a format in which moderators take back seats and let the principals go at it.

Hopefully, subsequent debates in this election cycle will be whittled down in size by diminishing candidate campaign resources and more demanding DNC tickets of admission. Such direct confrontations will be more digestible and revealing for voter edification.

But for now, the mob scenes being assembled in the current DNC-orchestrated free-for-alls will continue to ill serve both the candidates and the public.

There was an obvious reason that the first nationally televised presidential debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 were so popular and so memorable. The candidates went face-to-face in that Chicago studio with no props and no distractions for the viewers, and straightforwardly peddled their political wares.

We as viewers and consumers may never get back to those simpler times. The role of television has shaped presidential elections to the extent that the candidates often focus excessively on selling themselves rather than their policy proposals — a dynamic epitomized by President Donald Trump himself.


It's fine that every mother's son or daughter can become president of the United States. But must we have to have so many of them on the stage at the same time as we struggle to make up our minds?

Also, moderators chosen from the celebrity world of TV too often tend to shine the spotlight on themselves. Better to have journeymen and women beat reporters toss the questions with little or no partisan spin on them. That kind of mix might give voters a better basis on which to separate the quality candidates from the current dizzying pack.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at