I watched the first three Democratic Presidential Primary debates of the 2020 campaign as I have all debates in previous campaigns. There was one abundantly clear result from all three debates – they were a complete waste of time. Even worse, they could hurt the eventual nominee as well as down ballot races. The contests were fraught with conflict, lacking in meaningful discourse. Voters learned little if anything about the candidates; seeing most of them squabble and pander, but little example of true leadership to take on Trump and the Republican smear machine one of them will inevitably face. The Democratic National Committee really needs to carefully scrutinize the format, content, and utility of these events before it is too late. So do the campaigns! Insist on proper rules and standards.
There was a noticeable devolution in the 2016 Presidential Primary debates in both parties. The selected “moderators,” a group that included many respected and respectable journalists, employed a strategy more designed to provoke controversy and contentiousness between candidates rather than elicit thoughtful answers and policy insights. The latter would be far more helpful and important to voters, but the former, they believed, was better for ratings. This style certainly played to the advantage of reality TV showman Donald Trump who lacked any of the substantive knowledge necessary to meaningfully engage the field of seventeen Republican primary candidates. It hurt candidate Hillary Clinton in the Democratic debates, each of which erupted into a long, continuous fight with Bernie Sanders. Although Sanders proved more adept in this style, neither candidate positively acquitted themselves in this style.
The Republican Party has canceled its primary vetting process to benefit Trump’s reelection while the Democrats foolishly jumped back into the cauldron of contention, potentially damaging their own chances to win. From the outset, the high number of candidates made it logistically impossible to conduct an orderly and meaningful debate. Debates have been split into two nights with candidates randomly assigned to each night with no synchronicity between the nights. They may as well be entirely separate events, not two nights of one debate. Although there may be no choice in the matter, the DNC should insist on formats that produce meaningful dialogue as opposed to shameless entertainment. Topic selection also needs improvement. There are many important issues facing voters and they need to hear all candidates explain their position and evaluate the leadership of each candidate. They want to run against Trump, yet they refrain from contrasting themselves from him.
The DNC and the media hosts of the debates agree on the format. It is essential to address the largest moderator transgression that ruins the debate as a useful tool to evaluate candidates. Do not begin each question by requiring the candidate to disagree with another candidate or address comments by another candidate that were not part of the debate. Such questions are clearly intended simply to create controversy and division. They want to immediately provoke attack and counterattack in place of substantive discussion. They want anger and conflict rather than an honest professional discussion of important issues. Most candidates can’t resist taking the bait, and the moderators prod them to do so, portraying themselves to most voters in a negative light.
Candidates should absolutely highlight their differences on key issues. However, their answers should always incorporate the theme that they have more in common and all would be better than Trump or the Republicans. Their differences pale in comparison. Yet they quickly forget in the moment and when pressed by the moderators for conflict. Candidates need to score points on thoughtful intellect, not emotional theatrics. If they want to go for the “big moment” they should do so on the merits of their own position, not a chance to shamefully degrade another candidate, significantly hurting someone who could be the eventual nominee. If another candidate was truly unqualified to serve as President, that would be a different matter and there are proper ways to address that. Instead of highlighting the fact that candidates like Williamson, Yang, and Steyer lack even the remotest qualifications and experience, the so-called major candidates tend to form a circular firing squad over minor differences, hurting each other for the general election.
The media aims to exploit the mounting strife within the Democratic Party between those insisting on pure unabashed progressivism and those who believe in maintaining a more moderate, left of center national strategy. Ironically, the core values are much the same – healthcare, climate change, economic growth and fairness, fighting corruption, etc. The clash is between a more radical approach, such as Sanders’ revolution, and a more deliberate approach that attempts to build national consensus and avoid alienating pockets of voters. The struggle has become so profound that the camps often overlook that there is far more that unites them as Democrats than divides them into their respective ideological camps. No matter how strongly progressive believe in the cause, they must ensure they do not devolve into the Democrats version of the Tea Party. The Tea Party so divided the Republican Party and tarnished their mainstream that they almost killed the party. They still might. Progressives take heed of this critical lesson.
No matter how strongly anyone believes in the immediacy and primacy of their ideology and candidate, it is imperative to first win. The party, or its individual officeholders, cannot accomplish anything without winning. Democrats must win control of both the House and Senate, but also maintain their majorities beyond one electoral cycle. If not, they can and will accomplish nothing. The argument is identical and obvious for the White House. The more either party’s presidential candidate is labeled with the more extreme elements, the lower their chances of winning the White House because they will scare enough voters away from voting Democratic and perhaps further energize Republican voters.
Although House and Senate candidates must prioritize their own electability among their respective constituents, it is also imperative that candidates appreciate the ultimate importance of contributing to a national, fifty-state strategy to win and keep Congressional majorities and the White House. Presidential candidates directly impact Congressional races as the putative standard-bearer of their party and reflecting the priorities of their party on the national stage. Similarly, Congressional candidates with national attention can likewise influence other Congressional elections by linking mainstream candidates to their more extreme colleagues. Every candidate must be cognizant as to whether they enhance or detract from winning the White House and Congressional majorities. If not, their victories will be hollow as they will not be able to accomplish much, and they will find Congress lonely and unfulfilling.
Most pundits have articulated how the Brett Kavanaugh hearings negated the Democrats’ ability to win control of the Senate in 2018. This is not an endorsement of Kavanaugh belonging on the Supreme Court, which he does not based on his performance on Capitol Hill. The hearings were an atrocity. While Republicans blatantly prevented any real investigation or review to determine the truth behind serious allegations, Democratic members’ performance worked to their detriment and that had enough of a negative impact on voters to swing several close Senate races. Republicans became energized to come out and vote while some voters, mostly independents, either stayed home or switched their vote to the Republican candidate. Perhaps even Democrats hesitated in some cases. If Democrats had a majority, there would have been a proper investigation, appropriate hearings, and perhaps Kavanaugh would not even be on the Court. Elections have consequences and every seat matters!
Returning to the debates and the Presidential contenders, their performance and rhetoric in the debates not only influence the results of the primary but will impact the general election for the primary winner and for Congressional races. The cliché is true in both parties, candidates play to their base to win the primary and pivot to the middle to win the general election. The challenge is not to move so far to either extreme that it becomes impossible to credibly move back towards the middle. To some extent this happened to Hillary Clinton after Sanders pulled her off message during the primary and she never recovered her voice.
This is not the place to evaluate Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. There are many reasons I agree with those who believe he cannot win the Presidency, even against Donald Trump (unless Trump has a catastrophic failure during the campaign). There are significant fears that, win or lose the White House, a Sanders candidacy makes it much harder for Democrats to gain control of the Senate because there are states where his message will not resonate and he will be a drag on the down ballot races. There may be other candidates with similar impact. This does not mean Democrats have to shed their core values or priorities, but they must remain cognizant of the ultimate need to win to have any chance at getting anything done at all. The primary candidates act as if they are going to enact grandiose policy after they win the White House. The reality is that it will fall to Congress to pass any policy initiatives, not a new President. It is highly unlikely Congress will pass legislation akin to the more extreme alternatives being floated. The rhetoric merely hurts the chances of winning elections.
Several of the candidates immediately jumped on Sanders’ mandatory Medicare for All plan that also forcibly eliminates private insurance. Universal coverage is laudatory and a Democratic Party core value. Americans favor plans that ensure coverage for all, prior existing conditions, etc. However, in 2020 a plan that eliminates private insurance coverage for those that want to keep it goes too far. For example, labor unions negotiated hard and sacrificed wages to get the private health plans they have and it would be wrong to force them off those plans against their will, at least at this time without seeing that Medicare for All can successfully provide them with the same level of coverage. Beto O’Rourke blurted out a plan to confiscate firearms in the heat of the moment while addressing the recent gun violence crisis. Majorities of voters support efforts to improve background checks and ban military assault weapons, crucial measures a Democratic Congress and President could enact. Confiscation obscures the issue and frightens many voters.
Espousing extreme plans like these could cost the Democrats states they need to win the White House and even if they win the White House, it may cause them to again lose the Senate. Nothing happens if you don’t win first. Would it not be better to have the chance to make incremental improvements to healthcare and pass meaningful gun safety measures rather than allow Republicans to continue to defeat critical legislation and pack the courts with judges that will it strike down? An all or nothing approach often leads to nothing. Primary candidates need to use the opportunities in the debates and elsewhere to demonstrate to the American people that they are responsible, trustworthy leaders, not radical legislators they fear may push too far towards the extreme. The electorate has always feared the extreme and rewarded reason. Candidates take heed and do not squander your opportunity.