Debating Democrats, Please, No Fighting in the War Room. Direct Your Artillery at the Real Enemy, Herr Trump, Not at Each Other.

August 3, 2019

 
Democratic debates: incoming fire should be aimed at Trump’s appalling presidency. ( Dale Cummings )

Democratic debates: incoming fire should be aimed at Trump’s appalling presidency. (Dale Cummings)

By Michael Winship

I’m not one of those people who insists that every kid on the T-ball team receive a group participation trophy, sweet as that may be. But equally, my teeth grind when I see a flurry of post-debate articles headlined, “Winners and Losers.” They reduce this most important presidential campaign of our lives to a game where a single swing or a miss matters more than the heinous presidency we’re enduring or any of the issues vital to all of us terrified about the future for our families and ourselves.

I’m also annoyed by the debate format perpetrated by cable news networks more interested in creating conflict and melodrama than a legitimate discussion. The feigned gladiatorial confrontations CNN hyped in its promotion and then attempted to foment during the actual event serve no one.

Whether Kamala Harris and Cory Booker beat up on Joe Biden, or Elizabeth Warren made a pudding pop out of former Rep. John Delaney is, in the long run of the commonweal, not that important – although I hand it to Sen. Warren, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” was an inspired response.

Thoughts: On Tuesday night in Detroit the much-heralded battle between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders was a non-starter; each was too smart to fall for that hype.  And the attempt by so-called moderates to bring the two of them down quickly sputtered out.

As for Wednesday, featuring the second group of ten candidates, maybe I was just debated-out by then, but the evening seemed a fizzle. My friend Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect tweeted, “Only partly due to CNN's idiotic rules, it was a Hobbesian debate: a war of each against all; nasty, brutish and short.” Maybe, but to me it felt more like an intramural squabble fought with water pistols; nasty, brutish and squirt.

You can read plenty more in-depth analyses of the evenings elsewhere, but to my mind, as we winnow down the field, Warren, Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have performed the best of the front runners—but that much already was true after the first pair of debates in late June. Biden was stronger this time around, even with all the knives aimed at him; Harris was not—she seems better in her professional prosecutor mode than when put on the defensive.

As in June, I thought Julian Castro, Booker and Jay Inslee acquitted themselves well. I had hopes for new entrant Montana Governor Steve Bullock but much of what he had to say seemed packaged and when responding to women on the stage, felt uncomfortably like mansplaining. Exception: justifiable pride in the campaign finance reform he’s championed in his home state.

And surprises? In the first round on Tuesday, as others have noted, it was New Age spiritual healer Marianne Williamson. When she made her opening statement, I couldn’t tell if she was campaigning for president or a Golden Globe. By evening’s end she had made thoughtful statements on guns, racism, reparations and campaign finance reform.

“The issue of gun safety, of course, is that the NRA has us in a choke hold,” she said. “But so do the pharmaceutical companies, so do the health insurance companies, so do the fossil fuel companies, and so do the defense contractors. And none of this will change until we either pass a Constitutional amendment or pass legislation that establishes public funding for federal campaigns.” Hey, stop making sense.

On Wednesday, it was cyber entrepreneur Andrew Yang who got the crowd’s attention. “We need to do the opposite of much of what we’re doing right now, and the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” he said in his opening statement, to laughter and applause. Later, he said that rather than measure the economy by Wall Street highs and interest rates, “The way we win this election is we redefine economic progress to include all the things that matter to the people in Michigan and all of us, like our own health, our well being, our mental health, our clean air and clean water, how are kids are doing. If we change the measurements for the 21st century economy to revolve around our own well being then we will win this election.”

For those confused by the discussions of Medicare for All and the cascade of candidate proposals, the debates continue to illustrate how complicated and frustrating the issue of healthcare is – just ask Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who once produced a healthcare reform flow chart so complex it made the Manhattan Project look like the TV Guide crossword. But this remains a substantive and critical dialogue to be having and as weeks go by, fingers crossed, and with the field growing smaller, all may be clearer. But as mentioned more than once this week, it is vital as well to keep the spotlight on Trump’s attempts to completely eliminate the Affordable Care Act, placing millions at risk.

Essential, too, to keep immigration policy at the forefront, although based on what was heard this week, you’d be hard-pressed to realize that almost every one of the Democrats has a comprehensive, immigration reform plan (Keep reminding voters of that—and of the Trump administration’s relentless assault of the undocumented and the fact that there was a comprehensive bill in 2013 that passed in the Senate but died in the then-GOP House).

As was said more than once in this week’s debates, any one of the Democratic candidates is trustworthier and better qualified for the White House than its current occupant. What’s more, as Pete Buttigieg noted, "It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say."

On Tuesday night, Kamala Harris declared, “We have a predator in the White House.” But on Wednesday, there was way too much Obama bashing and not enough pummeling of Trump and delineating the daily disgrace of his presidency. Reports of disarray among the Democrats, of splits within the party, arguably play into the hands of the GOP.  But there is still time, and history tells us there will be unforeseen plot twists and turns ahead worthy of a Dickens novel.

On November 12, 1991, a year before Election Day, I attended the first Democratic presidential candidates debate of the ’92 campaign. It was at the national AFL-CIO convention, and like this week’s, held in Detroit.

I sat in the second row and remember thinking that none of them performed very well, that not a single one of them particularly impressed or would make an outstanding commander-in-chief. In fact, I thought the “winner” was the potential candidate who wasn’t even there and who eventually wound up deciding not to run at all – New York Governor Mario Cuomo, father of the state’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo.

There were six candidates on the stage that afternoon, some of whom you may not even remember—Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, former Governors Jerry Brown of California and Doug Wilder of Virginia.

And, oh yeah, one other guy: Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. When the smoke cleared all those weeks and months later, despite scandals surrounding his draft status, marijuana use (“I did not inhale.”) and infidelity, he was the president of the United States. Who’d have thought?

A couple of lessons from that story: First, in the immortal words of the late screenwriter Bill Goldman, nobody knows anything. Ignore the pundits and enjoy a happier life.

Second, don’t panic. There’s still a long way to go, more than 450 days—many more weeks to Election Day than there were the day of that 1991 AFL-CIO debate.

If a week is a lifetime in politics, fifteen months is a millennium—or two. Fasten your seat belts and hold on tight. You ain’t seen nothing yet.