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Howard Dean on the eligibility criteria for 2020 Democratic debates

Democrats appear headed for a one-night September presidential debate with 10 candidates. Wednesday marks the Democratic National Committee's deadline for candidates to meet stricter polling and fundraising criteria than for the first two debates -- prompting complaints from some of the field. Judy Woodruff talks to Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, presidential candidate and DNC chair.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It won't be official until midnight, but Democrats appear to be headed for a one-night presidential debate with 10 candidates in September.

    Today is the deadline to meet the criteria laid out by the Democratic National Committee. The polling and fundraising requirements are stricter than they were for the first two debates. They have to reach 2 percent or higher in four credible polls and to raise money from at least 130,000 donors.

    And that has some of the candidates who didn't make the cut crying foul.

    Here is U.S. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado speaking to delegates at last week's DNC summer meeting.

  • Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo:

    If we wanted to be the party that excluded people, we'd be Republicans. These rules have created exactly the wrong outcomes, and they will not help us beat Donald Trump.

    I'm not going to be on the debate stage next month, but I am going to be out in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada building the constituency for change this country needs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so we are joined now by someone with experience both on the debate stage, as a 2004 presidential contender and the former governor of Vermont, and behind the scenes, as chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009.

    Howard Dean, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So as you know, the earlier debates, there were 20 candidates spread over two nights. This time, there are going to be only 10, even though there are 20 candidates still in the race.

    Is that the right approach, do you think, for the Democratic Party?

  • Howard Dean:

    Well, you have to have some or order to this.

    And I will say, Michael Bennet, first of all, is one of my favorite candidates. But the truth is,you cannot have what the Republicans had, which was these chaotic series of debates, which then went on to nominate somebody who ended up as president, but is probably the worst president in the United States' history.

    We have to have a reasonably orderly process. Now, Michael has another shot, as do some of the other people who didn't get to the criteria this time. The same criteria applies to next month's debates.

    But at some point, if you can't get the grassroots together, and raise the money, and be in 20 states and raise your profile, then you can't be on the debate stage. There are 600 people, roughly, that run for president all the time. And most of them never get on the debate stage. There has to be some order to this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You are saying at some point there has to be some order.

    But as the campaign of Senator Bennet is pointing out, we are still five months away from the first voters voting, and they are asking, why is the DNC in a rush to squeeze, to winnow this field?

  • Howard Dean:

    Well, they don't necessarily — look, the winnowers of the field are the people that aren't raising the money and aren't — don't have the grassroots efforts.

    Now they have another month to do it, and I think that's fair. Even if they don't get it done in the next month, they can still go into Iowa, and there will be other forums and so forth and so on.

    But you cannot have the spectacle that went on in 2016 in the Republican Party. And that's what these rules are aimed at trying to not have.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, again, I guess, Governor, the question they're raising is that, why shouldn't this be up to the voters who are going to be voting in early 2020, rather than up to the Democratic Party officials?

    And, frankly, some of the candidates are saying the process has not been transparent.

  • Howard Dean:

    It is transparent. And it is up to the voters.

    If the voters choose one of these folks, and some of these folks didn't get on the stage in the next week end up in the top three in Iowa, or New Hampshire, or Nevada, or South Carolina, then they will be in the primary. We're not excluding anybody from the process.

    We are trying to maintain a reasonable set of criteria, so people can listen to what is going on in the debates. If I have had my way, I actually still would have had two nights. I just would have had five people on each night.

    But, look, this is always a difficult situation. We always run into this. We had to handle the same thing. We had three fringe candidates that wanted to be on all the time. At some point, you can't be on all the time, because it distracts from the message of the people who are in the race. And that's the top 10 people.

    And I don't — you know, I don't have a big quarrel with this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was reading some of the criticisms or at least questions raised by Governor Steve Bullock, who is not going to be on the debate stage, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard not going to be on the debate stage.

    And then, again, Senator Bennet, his campaign adviser put out a statement today. Maybe he was quoting Senator Bennet himself. He said: "The DNC's process is stifling debate at a time when we need it the most." He said: "We're rewarding celebrity candidates with millions of Twitter followers, billionaires who buy their way on to the debate stage and candidates who have been running for president for years."

    And he — they went on to say it forces campaigns to fork over millions of dollars to Facebook.

  • Howard Dean:

    Pete Buttigieg is an example of somebody who did fine under this current system. Julian Castro did fine under this system. Amy Klobuchar, a United States senator, did fine under this system.

    Look, you are going to have people complain. I think the world of Michael, and I like Steve Bullock a lot too. I hope they make it into the next round.

    But you are going to have to demonstrate some significant support, and significant support both in polls and in grassroots support, in order to get on that stage. And I think that's fair.

    You can argue that this is arbitrary. And maybe it is too early. But there has to be some order to the debates. And that's what Perez is trying to do. And I think he's doing the best he can.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying, if you had designed these debates, you might have done it a little differently. You said you might have done it over two nights with fewer people. You might not have tightened the…

  • Howard Dean:

    Yes, sure. Yes, but I'm not the chairman of the party. Tom is the chairman of the party.

    And, believe me, look, the party was in worse — party was in pretty bad shape when I took it over. It was in worse shape when Tom took it over. So of course we're going to — there's always going to be differences of opinions.

    But I'm going to stand up for Tom Perez as long as I think he's doing the best he can. And I think he's doing the best he can.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I should point out we did seek today to talk with Chairman Perez. He wasn't available tonight. And we will continue — continue to try to talk to him.

    But, finally, Howard Dean, how should voters look on this Democratic process between now — here we are at the end of August. The first votes are not going to be cast, what, in Iowa until early February.

    Should voters look on this as a process where it's good that a lot of candidates are still in the race until the end, or that it does get a lot — that there are many fewer as soon as possible?

  • Howard Dean:

    No, I don't think we should have as many fewer as soon as possible.

    I think we should have a gradual winnowing process, which is exactly what's going on. I have enjoyed these debates. I thought the last one was a little rugged in terms of the way that the panel asked the questions and the candidates went after each other.

    The first three, for me, were just terrific. There's a lot of people I have never seen in action that are on these debates, including Mike and Steve, who were both, I think, in the last debate.

    So I think this is a great system. I'm looking forward to more. I hope some of these candidates do make the criteria, which are not going to change for the next month's debate. I encourage them to do that and to work hard and to build their grassroots base. And I think that's good for everybody.

    And I think most Democrats really enjoy these debates, especially when we get to see people that we don't really know that well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Howard Dean, the former chair of the Democratic Party, former candidate for president himself, thank you very much.

  • Howard Dean:

    Thanks, Judy.

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