Something for the Democrats to Try at the Debates: a Little Togetherness
At Texas Southern University, in Houston, on Thursday night, the major Democratic candidates for President will finally be assembled on one stage. For three hours, from 7 to 10 P.M. Central Time, they will deal with questions posed by representatives of ABC News and Univision, and voters and pundits will judge their performances and form conclusions about who is getting the better of whom.
Meanwhile, another contest with implications for both the 2020 election and our collective future will be unfolding. It involves the invisible parties known as centrifugal and centripetal force—the tendency of moving bodies to fly apart or come together, respectively.
The centrifugal dynamic may be more in evidence tonight. We call these events debates, which presupposes disagreement. The questions come from TV newspeople, who are professionally inclined to bring up topics expected to stir conflict. Add in the phenomenon of an unusually large field of candidates, some under mounting pressure to stand out from the pack, and this tensome could spend a fair amount of the evening explaining and justifying their policy differences.
Alongside the obvious potential for disunity, however, a strong tug toward unity might be felt. Each candidate hopes to lead the Democratic Party’s effort to end a Presidency they all see more as a national disaster than as an ordinary deviation from the path of good policy and government. That shared belief gives their cause the character of an emergency-rescue mission, in which it would be appropriate to set past quarrels aside. The Democratic candidates are also aware of the poll-tested fact that many of their party’s settled positions command wide public support: most leading Democrats and the majority of Americans think alike about a lot of things.
The alignment is close when it comes, for example, to raising the minimum wage, imposing higher taxes on the wealthy, making health care a universal right, treating immigrant families and refugees humanely, and taking credible action to reduce gun violence. On these and other issues, the Democratic candidates could truthfully say, “We may disagree about the details, but we are all absolutely committed to [fill in the blank].” And they could truthfully add, “Our nominee, whichever one of us it is, will be trying to translate that broad agreement into action that Americans will feel and see and approve.”
Democrats are also in a position to tap into a deep well of disgust over Trump-related (and Trump-exemplified) corruption, whether understood in the conventional sense of behavior that crosses into the neighborhood of bribery or theft, or in the bigger sense of laws written, policies shaped and applied, and government agencies and programs run for the benefit of insiders, corporations, and the ultra-wealthy. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey of voters, from September, the “influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” ranked just one percentage point behind the economy as the electorate’s top concern. Roughly seven in ten of us, according to a January, 2019, Axios/Survey Monkey poll, view the current economic system as skewed toward the wealthy, want the government to do more about it, and profess to be “ready to vote for a candidate who agrees.”
House Democrats, in the first symbolic act of their majority, enacted an unexpectedly serious clean-government and fair-elections bill. Among other things, H.R.-1 calls for nonpartisan redistricting, disclosure of dark-money donors, and a matching-fund system for candidates who submit to limits on campaign contributions. Many elected Democrats have endorsed stronger steps, such as a lifetime ban on lobbying by former Presidents, lawmakers, and other top officials. Far more people would know about these proposals if the candidates made a point of bringing them up. And more people would take them seriously if some of the candidates decided to acknowledge and regret their own party’s historic complicity in the problem.
The corruption issue has the added virtue of being pretty much omni-relevant. What would your Administration do to combat global warming? After you’ve described your vision of a Green New Deal, you can talk about breaking the fossil-fuel industry’s headlock on energy policy. How would you help low-income families get out from under the burden of enormous student-loan debt? Besides laying out a plan for debt relief, you can promise to keep sometime for-profit college lobbyists out of the Department of Education. If you’re asked about tax policy, you can point to the “opportunity zone” tax break, which so far is shaping up to be a windfall for wealthy investors, such as Jared Kushner’s family members, while doing next to nothing for the distressed communities that it is supposed to benefit. In Donald Trump’s America, it is the rare debate question that does not invite a corollary discussion of crooked doings in high places.
Political parties are supposed to “pull together” once they have chosen a ticket and adopted a platform. That old tradition may not be adequate to the present occasion. The other side, after all, is already in general-election mode, combing the Democratic candidates’ statements for attack material. Trump & Co. can also be counted on to continue generating a record of unsavory deeds, which Democrats could and should be calling out in unison.
The candidates can’t be expected to squelch their differences—that wouldn’t be fair to their debate audience or tolerated by their hosts. But they would do well to self-regulate the amount of airtime devoted to verbal combat and to mount some coördinated resistance if the questioners try to provoke them. That way, they can reserve time for a joint effort to emphasize common values and positions, especially on the issues where they have something strong and clear to say with near unanimity.
Declarations of shared purpose are not the norm in a primary campaign. That’s another big argument for them. These candidates are running not just against a President and a party but against the tendency of proto-dictatorships and other abhorrent situations to be regarded, eventually, as acceptable or unalterable. The normalization syndrome will be another hidden presence in the room tonight, and throughout the 2020 contest. It is likely to be a tough opponent for these candidates, right up there with Donald Trump and the Republicans.
A debate—typically watched by a small and base-heavy part of the electorate—may not be the ideal setting for shows of togetherness, but, by making them a persistent and novel feature of this primary season, the candidates will be saying, “We’ve chosen to make our campaign extraordinary as a way of reminding everybody that this election is extraordinary.”