The most riveting moment from the Democratic presidential candidates’ first debates this week came well into Thursday night’s session, when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) emotionally rebuked former Vice President Joe Biden for his efforts years ago to block federal efforts to integrate local Delaware schools through busing — a history Biden defended poorly instead of apologizing for.
It was a headline-grabbing exchange that may have done real damage to the front-running Biden. But it was also one of the few times that any of the candidates went after one of their rivals’ records. Instead, they focused mainly on the problems of the moment — starting with President Trump — and their ideas for solving them.
The two nights of debates were, for the most part, a welcome if often unruly opening to what we can only hope will be a healthy, informative, engaging race for the nomination. Mostly serious questions were asked, mostly serious answers were given, with some sparring around the edges that generated more light than heat.
With so many candidates sharing the stage, voters caught little more than a glimpse of each one’s ideas, personality, character and, in many cases, carefully crafted biography (“I served in the military!” “I was raised by a single mother!”). Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came across as fiery; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota as sensible; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg as thoughtful; Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and much-maligned New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as impassioned. The format no doubt left viewers as frustrated as the candidates who struggled for time on camera, because the truncated discussions made it hard to see the distinctions within the field.
One exception was the back-and-forth each evening on healthcare, in which the more moderate Democratic candidates drew a clear contrast between their approach (keeping the insurance system we’ve got while increasing access to care by offering access to Medicare or Medicaid) and what the farther-left candidates would do (expanding Medicare to all Americans, potentially to the exclusion of private insurance). More typical was the commentary on illegal immigration, where the united denunciations of Trump’s policies obscured important potential differences over how to handle people entering the country illegally.
Good for them for asking whether sneaking into the country should be a crime. Good for them for elevating climate change to the priority it should have been given a long time ago. Good for them for exploring how best to achieve universal healthcare coverage and to narrow the income gap. But in the end, policy details are probably not what’s going to win the election.
Ultimately, this race will be won not on a mastery of specifics but on a vision for what comes next. The Democrats need to do a better job — most likely in a different type of forum — explaining in compelling terms why the current president is harming the country, as well as laying out how they would undo that damage. How has the gap between the rich and everyone else in this country widened, and how does that weaken the overall economy? Why is it so horrendously dangerous to pull back from the fight for global warming, and how will it affect our kids? Why does it matter if our practices at the border are so cruel that America’s reputation for fairness and generosity is destroyed? What does it mean to rupture alliances and squander the standing of the United States in the world?
Beyond that, they must persuade the country that they’re not glibly promising the unattainable — a problem that cropped up on the debate stage both nights — but offering an approach to governing that will yield better results for Americans, especially for those who feel excluded from the economy. As many of the candidates noted, the Democrats once were the party of working-class men and women, of union members, of people of color, while the Republicans were seen as the out-of-touch party of business interests. In the Trump era, none of that can be taken for granted.
The debates were a good opening salvo, with many in the field displaying a sense of seriousness and direction. But it’s a long, hard slog to defeat one of the most instinctive political fighters of all time — who also happens to be one of the country’s most dangerous presidents.
Thirty-five minutes into the first debate, Trump weighed in on Twitter with a single word: “Boring.”
It was a typically rude put-down by the president, designed to generate laughs and derision. And there was something fundamentally honest about the comment, which came as the candidates moved from discussing the economy and healthcare to debating illegal immigration: Trump neither knows nor cares about policy issues. He finds even the important details uninteresting. And he’s the one implementing (or vetoing) them.
But as with so many of Trump’s utterances, he was wrong. The first two debates may have been chaotic and overstuffed. But they were not boring.
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