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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Presidential debates are about donations as much as issues

At the risk of sounding older than Methuselah, I remember when presidential debates were rare and important for the issues discussed. Now, they seem to be designed as opportunities for news networks to fill time slots with programming and for candidates to beg for money.

The Democratic presidential candidate debates apparently will be a monthly occurrence through the end of the year – and possibly two-night extravaganzas until the vast majority of White House wannabes realize it just ain’t gonna happen and go back to their day jobs.

Because the stage each night held 10 candidates and the moderators seemed unable to enforce the rules about who should talk and for how long, most issues got about as much depth as an oil slick in a pothole. Some questions were relegated to “Raise your hand if …”

Imagine if the moderator of a Kennedy-Nixon debate had said, “Show of hands, do we have a missile gap with the Soviets? OK, that’d be a yes for Senator Kennedy and a no for Vice President Nixon. … Now, about Cuba …”

The biggest shift in the importance of debates is how the candidates and the parties use them as a springboard for fundraising. Gov. Jay Inslee hadn’t even stepped onto the stage for the first debate Wednesday when his campaign sent an email pitch for money, claiming the Democratic National Committee “had just announced a massive new threshold for us to reach the debates this fall. Now we have to reach 130,000 voters.”

A few hours later, the campaign posted a donation pitch on Facebook saying Inslee just got off the debate stage, “but to keep Jay on the stage for the next debates, we need YOU to take action and chip in.” Later, they claimed Inslee “knocked it out of the park … but right now we’re NOT on track to keep him on stage for the next debates – unless we reach our 15,000 donation goal before Sunday at midnight.”

Some of this is hyperbole – Inslee had some good minutes in the debate but less time on camera than any other candidate in Wednesday’s debate, or even some moderators – and some is downright false. There is no “new threshold”; the 130,000-donor requirement was announced weeks ago. It has nothing to do with the next debates in July, which a campaign spokesman said Inslee already has qualified for. Instead, it applies to the September debate.

The goal of 15,000 donations by midnight Sunday is a goal set by the campaign. If they only get 14,999 by the end of the weekend, he’s not out of luck.

Julian Castro also had a Facebook appeal claiming “new rules mean I might not make the cut for the next debates” if people don’t show support by taking an online poll before midnight.

The only way any of this week’s candidates will be bounced from the July stage is based on the old rules, that set up an elaborate tiebreaker for those who just barely make the polling and donation thresholds if more than 20 candidates qualify. But it has to be legitimate, recognized surveys, so if people are paying to take that “poll,” which would mean it’s actually just a donation, it can’t affect his eligibility.

Former Vice President Joe Biden sent out an email about an hour before Thursday’s debate asking folks to click on a button to “let me know you’re with me.” The button, not surprisingly, took you to a website that asked for your name, address, email address and, of course, a donation.

Based on Biden’s performance, he may have spent too much time before Thursday evening checking who was with him, and not enough time on debate prep.

At least she didn’t

ask for money

Marianne Williamson, the Democratic candidate who might be best remembered for her closing statement Thursday in which she said she’d beat Donald Trump by harnessing love, did not send out a broad appeal for money before Thursday’s debate. But she did send out a news release correctly predicting what she wouldn’t be asked: Do you dance?

She didn’t just say yes. She sent a link to an Instagram video demonstrating that she does. Sort of.

She also sent out tips on how to avoid stress while watching the debates. They included trying yoga, instead of downing shots, and having everyone at the debate watch party hold hands and tell each other “Namaste” when it was over.

In memoriam

The Legislature lost one of its straight shooters last week, House Democratic Caucus Communications Chief Jim Richards, who died of a heart attack at the too-young age of 57.

He held a tough job as the spokesman for House Speaker Frank Chopp, who often didn’t want to speak with reporters. But Richards was good at tracking down information or someone to comment, and when he said “I’ll get back to you,” he did.

House Democratic Caucus Chief of Staff Orlando Cano said he was “a beloved and valued member of the caucus family who will be deeply missed.”

He’ll be missed by the Capitol press corps as well.

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