Iowa Democratic leaders critical of debate rules that close the 'marketplace of ideas'

High-profile supporters of Steve Bullock - who didn't make the cut - speak out

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democratic candidate for president, speaks at a May 17 campaign event at Uncle Nancy's Cof
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democratic candidate for president, speaks at a May 17 campaign event at Uncle Nancy’s Coffee House in Newton. To his right is Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who has endorsed Bullock. Miller was one of three Iowa Democratic leaders who criticized the Democratic National Committee’s debate rules in a conference call Tuesday organized by the Bullock campaign. Bullock did not meet the DNC’s threshold to qualify for Tuesday night’s debate. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A trio of longtime Iowa Democratic leaders who have decades of experience in the first-in-the-nation caucuses criticized Democratic National Committee debate rules that effectively close the “marketplace of ideas.”

To qualify for Tuesday’s debate, candidates had to hit at least 2 percent in four DNC-approved polls and have at least 130,000 unique campaign contributors.

Attorney General Tom Miller and Jan Bauer — who have endorsed Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who did not qualify for the debate — said the DNC’s rules ignore the history of come-from-behind caucus winners by shutting out candidates who lack the name recognition and financial support of media-anointed front-runners.

“I’ve watched the highest-polling, well-resourced and seemingly inevitable nominees meet a humble end to their campaign,” Miller said on a conference call Tuesday organized by the Bullock campaign. “But I’ve also seen candidates who are seemingly written off find their success through perseverance, a recognition of the struggles Iowans face and the ability to spur faith in a vision that government can do great things for everyone.”

Unfortunately, the rules “artificially narrow the field around debates that people aren’t even watching,” Miller said.

Polling has shown only a third of Iowans say they have watched the DNC debates, and 80 percent of likely caucusgoers say they have not decided whom they will support in the Feb. 3 caucuses, he said.

Bauer, who chaired the Story County Democratic Party for 22 years, called it telling that she and Miller were on the call because “there hasn’t been a caucus in the past three decades where the attorney general and I weren’t working on the front lines of the caucuses.”


Bauer recalled how John Kerry was written off in the months leading up to the 2004 caucuses and Hillary Clinton was thought to have an insurmountable lead over Barack Obama in 2008.

“Neither truly found their voice until right before Iowans were to head to the precincts for their caucus,” Bauer said. “The process didn’t count them out early. They were not arbitrarily pushed from the conversation before people tuned in.”

As one of three Iowa DNC members, Bauer said she troubled by how party leadership “is trying to narrow Iowa’s choices in this election by running through Washington powerbrokers first.”

Former Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Dave Nagle, who hasn’t endorsed any candidate, said candidates should be judged in how they perform in town hall meetings and living rooms, not only how well they do from behind a microphone in televised debates. That’s unfair to caucusgoers and the candidates, he said.

“When you close this down to a limited forum based on money and name recognition, you deprive the nation of the experience of the marketplace of ideas clashing with each other and evolving,” Nagle said. “You deny the candidates the opportunity to learn from each other in terms of which one had the best proposals, which ones carry water and which of their own ideas should be refined to make a more compelling message if they are chosen to be the nominee.”

Like the others, Nagle said it’s too soon for the DNC or anyone else to be crowning a caucus winner.

“These things turn. They are volatile, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a process more volatile than this one,” Nagle said. “So hold your fire. Don’t start writing obits. We’ve got a long ways to go and a lot of excitement left.”

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