Outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night, a few dozen protesters—some on Martin O’Malley’s payroll, some holding Martin O’Malley signs, others wearing Bernie Sanders T-shirts, and none supporting Lincoln Chafee—gathered to register their dissatisfaction with DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s plan to host just six debates, compared to 26 in 2008.
They registered this complaint, mostly, through song, the lyrics and chords to which were handed out to protesters and press alike.
D Bm A G Hey, Debbie Wasserman Schultz D Bm G A We’re gonna call and complain until we get results D A Bm F#m Only six debates, we think that’s whack GA We think there ought to be at least triple that
The tune was composed by Jonathan Mann, who is YouTube-famous for writing a song a day for the last several thousand days. One assumes he is somewhat exhausted by now.
Anyway, the song and the man with the bongo drum aside, the lack of Democratic debates is a very real problem for the party and, you could surely argue, for the democracy itself. And no one is angrier about it than O’Malley, who is polling at 1.8 percent.
Earlier Wednesday it was reported by Politico that the DNC had “carefully negotiated” the number of debates with the Democratic campaigns, but Lis Smith, O’Malley’s spokeswoman, said that’s just not true.
Standing among the protesters, holding a “#WENEEDDEBATE” sign, she told me, “It was not a negotiation, it was a decree.”
The DNC approached the O’Malley campaign in February, March, and April with its six-debate proposal, according to Smith, and she said the campaign shot the DNC down each time. And not only was there no negotiation, Smith said, but the DNC also lied about the exclusivity clause, which stipulates that candidates can’t participate in events not sanctioned by the DNC. The party assured the O’Malley campaign there wouldn’t be one, Smith said, but then, an hour before announcing its debate schedule, it changed course.
Asked if Smith believes the DNC is limiting the number of debates in order to protect Clinton, who benefits from having the highest name-ID of any announced Democrat and is not exactly known for being light on her feet in debate, the O’Malley spokeswoman said, “In the absence of them offering any other excuse, I think that has to be the natural assumption.”
O’Malley’s campaign manager, Dave Hamrick, who was also at the protest, echoed Smith. “I do think that’s the only answer,” he said, “that they made a political calculus that somehow they think it’s in Secretary Clinton’s best interest to not have debates.”
Two vice chairs of the DNC, Tulsi Gabbard and R.T. Rybak, have split with Schultz on the issue, but she still hasn’t budged. Reached for comment, DNC spokeswoman Holly Shulman naturally denied accusations that the party is in the tank for any one candidate. “The DNC runs an impartial primary process,” she said. And then, in a beautiful moment of spin on the call for more debates, she added, “We are thrilled the candidates are so eager to participate in our debates.”
The protest was technically organized by Allow Debate, which bills itself as a grassroots organization intent on convincing the DNC to, well, allow more debate. Ben Doernberg, the 26-year-old founder of the group, told me that he contacted all the other Democrats seeking the nomination to see if they would like to be involved in the protest, but only O’Malley said yes. Doernberg said he once talked to Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, at an event, and that he was receptive to the cause but ultimately not looking to get involved. A Sanders strategist told Politico on Wednesday, “we join [O’Malley] in calling for more debates. That’s our position. But are we going to have a sit-down in the DNC lobby? No.”
That didn’t stop a handful of Sanders’s supporters, however.
Paul Sasso, who has been a Sanders fan since the financial crisis, traveled to the event from San Diego in his custom Tesla, which says “Bernie 2016” on the side. On the back window is an outline of Sanders’s white hair and glasses. Sasso got the car in December 2014, the vinyl wrap in February.
And two musicians told me, after a rendition of “The Times They Are a Changin’,” that they are for Sanders, too. “He’s for the working class. He’s the salt of the earth,” Andrew Hardy, on bongo, said. “Every issue on feelthebern.org, I went through, and I agree with all of them,” said Michael Brennan, on guitar and vocals.
In the background, the rest of the crowd chanted, “Americans don’t gamble with their fate, they hold elections with debate.”
Six of them, at least.