Op-Ed: The Democratic debates didn’t change anything. Trump is still likely to win in 2020

Democratic presidential hopefuls at Detroit debate
In this week’s Democratic debates, candidates attacked Barack Obama’s presidency.
(Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

After watching two nights of Democratic debates, all I can say is this: Man, it’s a tough time to be Barack Obama. Democratic presidential candidates lined up to savage his record with more ferocity than former prosecutor Kamala Harris used to muster for a morning drug arrest docket.

These are Democrats, people! And they can’t hammer Obama enough on healthcare, trade and immigration. Dude probably has an approval rating of 95% to 98% among the Democrats they’re trying to woo, and yet the candidates are taking batting practice on him.

Healthcare is the most glaring divide among the Democrats — and a primary source of the attacks on Obama.


“Nobody can defend the dysfunctionality of the current system!” Bernie Sanders thundered on Night 1. That system, if you are keeping score at home, is Obamacare! The socialist senator from Vermont has moved most of the field his way, which means, in essence, they are advocating repeal-and-replace of Obama’s signature law. Sound familiar?

President Trump’s primary argument for reelection is that he is presiding over an era of peace and prosperity, and no Democrat on either night punctured that argument. While debating skills won’t determine if a Democrat can beat Trump (Hillary bested him, according to polling), I’ve yet to see anyone who worries me more than the others. The best debater they have is clearly Elizabeth Warren, but her dark vision of America will seem foreign to voters living in a country with low unemployment and rising wages.

Trump, like most incumbent presidents, is more likely than not to be reelected. He has all the tools and power of incumbency going for him, and opponents who are more beholden to woke Twitter activists than to average folks in the Midwestern countryside. There’s a lot of runway between now and next November, of course, and Trump has a penchant for stepping in his own you-know-what. But he’s the favorite, and the debates haven’t changed that.

Joe Biden effectively defended Obamacare in his exchanges with Harris and Bill de Blasio on Night 2, rattling his young tormentor from the first debate. But Biden has yet to face the real dragon: Warren, a far better advocate for socialist medicine than the flip-flopping Harris. On immigration, Biden came under withering fire for the Obama administration’s record on deporting illegal immigrants from De Blasio, who has garnered bipartisan consensus as the most annoying candidate in the race. Biden sidestepped the attack for the most part but did tell CNN moderator Don Lemon that Obama’s deportation rates would “absolutely not” be replicated by his administration if he won in 2020.

Fun fact: Obama deported more than 3 million illegal immigrants, versus about 2 million for George W. Bush and less than 1 million for Bill Clinton. Even the Trump Administration isn’t deporting people as fast as Obama did!

Biden tossed Obama under the bus again on trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying he would not reenter the agreement without renegotiating it — sounding a bit like Trump, who withdrew from the TPP days after taking office. Biden had been a top surrogate for passing the TPP in Obama’s second term, calling it “a game changer…comprehensive, high-standard trade agreement.”


But that was then.

Just a few weeks ago, Biden’s message was essentially that if we just reset everything to where it was during the Obama years, America would be back on track. But even Biden now seems to think the last Democratic administration made tremendous mistakes. I can’t help but wonder when Democrats will learn to treat Obama the way Republicans treat Ronald Reagan.

Tactically, the debates clarified that there was one serious group of candidates and that everyone else was pretty well done. Biden rebounded. Cory Booker had a decent night, too.

On the first night, Warren and Sanders satisfied their supporters. Although Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Marianne Williamson had good moments, too, their time is probably limited. This thing has boiled down to Biden, Warren and Sanders in the top tier, and Harris, Booker and Pete Buttigieg in a second tier. Biden will continue to lead as long as Warren and Sanders fragment the progressive left.

Everyone else is at best white noise. At worst, the rest of the field could destructively drag Democrats left on immigration and abortion. Castro has continued his crusade to decriminalize illegal border crossings and offer free healthcare for illegal immigrants louder than anyone. While Biden countered him on the former, Biden never addressed the latter after raising his hand in support of this politically disastrous idea in the first debate.

Harris is now particularly vulnerable, as she was rattled by Biden on healthcare and flat out waylaid by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii for jailing so many Californians. Booker may advance if Harris falls out of favor of the national political media, although his incessant whining about Democrats debating each other at a debate was weird.

A final word about a swing state — Pennsylvania. The attack on coal by several Democrats, including Joe Biden, could have a significant impact on his party’s ability to win back the Keystone State. For people who live in coal-producing areas, this is more than a climate issue. It is a cultural touchstone that badly hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016 and will haunt Democrats again in 2020.


Scott Jennings is a Republican advisor, former special assistant to President George W. Bush and CNN political commentator.