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SAN FRANCISCO — A Democratic National Committee meeting erupted into a bitter battle Thursday morning over the question of holding a climate-specific presidential debate, with party officials stamping down a resolution calling for a such an event in the face of raucous opposition from activists.
In a 17-to-8 vote, the DNC’s Resolutions Committee defeated a resolution that called for the candidates to debate each other about their views and policies on climate change — on a national stage.
Young protesters filling the room hissed, jeered and sang the union song “Which Side Are You On?” before and after the vote.
The two-hour-plus debate laid bare tensions in the party between climate activists and party leaders, and a generational divide between the mostly young protesters and the DNC officials.
“We’re asking you to fight for our futures!” one woman standing on a chair shouted at committee members, to waves of applause.
Kristy Mualim, a 23-year-old from Palo Alto who brought her skateboard with her into the meeting, said Thursday’s vote is “definitely not the end” of the fight for a climate debate.
“A lot of the people dismissing the signs of climate change aren’t going to be living long enough to experience the impact of it,” she argued.
The battle hinges on the difference between a debate and a forum. DNC rules allow third-party groups to hold presidential forums, with candidates appearing separately, one at a time. DNC rules do not allow third-party groups to hold debates where candidates face off on stage at once.
CNN and MSNBC are hosting two presidential forums on climate change next month, but activists say that isn’t enough. Rather than a format that that doesn’t allow interaction between the contenders, they’re demanding a head-to-head, party-sponsored debate to give the climate crisis the attention it deserves.
Party leadership, including DNC chair Tom Perez, is strongly against the idea, insisting it would be unfair to focus a debate on any single issue.
The committee did approve a weaker measure calling for a climate forum “with the candidates appearing on the same stage, engaging one another in discussion.” But it’s unclear that would be possible under the DNC rules.
Proponents of a climate debate had expected to lose the vote in Thursday’s committee, and are planning to bring the issue back up at the general session Saturday.
Thursday’s lively debate ranged from warnings of the dangers of climate change to clashes over the primary process, with many members voicing concern that the two presidential debates so far had prioritized 30-second soundbites instead of substantive policy discussions.
Tina Podlodowski, the Washington State Democratic Party chair, who’s spearheading the effort, argued that holding a climate debate was “about our own survival on the planet.”
“We don’t have to lock ourselves into debates that don’t work for us,” she said. “This is our process, the process is not working, we can fix the darn process to be sure it represents the best of us.”
But Symone Sanders, a DNC member and senior advisor for presidential candidate Joe Biden, argued holding a climate debate “would fundamentally change the game” of what the campaigns had been told about the debate rules. Rewriting those rules now would be “dangerous territory in the middle of a Democratic primary process,” she said.
Biden has previously called for a climate debate, but Sanders noted that she was on the committee speaking for herself and not a campaign representative.
Other committee members argued that while climate change was an existential threat, issues such as voting rights or gun control also deserved their own debates.
“What do we say to the other 30 groups asking for these?” asked Craig Smith, a delegate from Florida, who opposed a climate debate. “We’re picking something out of the air.”
California DNC member Christine Pelosi, the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, called for holding a series of debates on specific issues including climate change. Her resolution was also voted down Thursday, but will likely come up again on Saturday.
The vote comes the day after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who’d made climate change the centerpiece issue of his presidential campaign, dropped out of the White House race.
Thirteen presidential candidates are expected to speak at the San Francisco DNC meeting Friday, but none of the contenders were present at the meeting on the climate debate Thursday.
CNN’s forum on Sept. 4 will allow 10 candidates to talk about their plans. All of the top candidates will be there — Sen. Kamala Harris initially declined the invitation, citing a scheduling conflict, but agreed to attend Tuesday after facing criticism. Another MSNBC climate forum later in September is open to all candidates.