There’s no nice way to say it – the Democratic Party as a whole is in disarray, and their message to voters is wildly incoherent. While some candidates try to steer a middle course, most are attempting to capitalize on the activist base where the party’s energy is focused. Although this may be a decent strategy during the primaries, the current field of Democrats are largely coming across as unhinged and unsure about what they want other than to beat President Donald Trump.
While disagreement is healthy and necessary during a primary, the Democrats have exposed the lack of a real, workable governing philosophy at the heart of their party. This incoherence is a problem when it comes to picking up swing voters and independents, not to mention politically passive Democrats who dislike Trump but are not very impressed with the Democrats either. Nonetheless, despite these criticisms, the second set of Democratic debates in Detroit on July 30 and 31 were an improvement over the embarrassing spectacle of the first set of debates in Miami earlier in the month. At least this time, the candidates marked clear ground on several issues of contention, and did not try to speak garbled Spanish.
Who Caught Voters’ Attention?
The standard horse-race analysis has it that former VP Joe Biden had an especially bad night, as did Mayor Bill de Blasio, while Cory Booker and Julian Castro did a surprisingly good job (the bar is low). Elizabeth Warren put in a solid performance, as did Marianne Williamson, with her denunciation of the Democratic party’s self-defeating and self-righteous approach to beating Trump.
In terms of speaking time, night one belonged to Warren, who got over 18 minutes, and Bernie Sanders, at over 17, while Marianne Williamson and John Hickenlooper clocked in at the bottom with just over eight; on night two, Joe Biden was gifted upwards of 21 minutes and Kamala Harris got over 17 (because, as she put it in a post-debate brag, she is one of the “top-tier” candidates). Andrew Yang and Bill de Blasio both spoke for around 9 minutes, with Beto O’Rourke somewhere in the same region of time with a forgettable showing, and Tulsi Gabbard also somewhere pretty close to being ignored. The rest of the candidates’ speaking time fell somewhere in the middle.
Despite already very high name recognition and a solid activist base, Bernie Sanders boosted himself even more with his strong performance. He came out swinging, and absolutely bulldozed several individuals onstage, such as Tim Ryan, who challenged Sanders about whether the Vermont Senator’s proposed Medicare For All bill would actually cover prescriptions, eyeglasses, hearing aids and dental care.
“You don’t know that,” Ryan quipped.
“I do know—I wrote the damn bill,” Sanders fired back.
Another punch-in-the-face moment came when Gabbard absolutely demolished Kamala Harris’ record on criminal justice, leaving the California Senator sputtering like a fish out of water.
Democrats Need To Get Their Heads in the Game
Booker’s bizarre statement that the debates were dividing Democrats too much against each other – which amounted to asking why people need to debate in a debate – was a good symbol of the woolliness of the party’s current mentality. As breakout star and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson put it, “political insider games” and “wonkiness” won’t win elections, and if Democrats keep hiding from their own complicity in the corruption and donor-run system affecting the current economic and foreign policy situation, “those who vote for Trump will continue to vote for Trump, and those who might not like Donald Trump will continue to stay home.” Williamson, who is attracting more and more positive and negative media attention alike, has a good point.
The next debate is September 12th (and 13th if enough candidates qualify) at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. It is going to be much more difficult for candidates to qualify, so they will all be trying to make the absolute most of the opportunity if they do get a place onstage. The Democratic National Committee has announced that the third debate will be in September, but candidates will require at least two percent in four polls and 130,000 donors, with a minimum of 400 donors in at least 20 states, to get onstage. Although many lower-tier candidates polling at 0.5 and 1 percent will be shown the exit by September, it is quite possible that Gabbard, Yang and Williamson could make it by continuing to ride media controversy and attracting attention and support. Either way, the field in September will be much smaller, and the jabs will be much harder. If a Democrat really wants to beat President Trump, they will need to start clearly advancing a vision that can unify the party and attract voters, instead of pandering only to certain parts of the base or floating their own “woke” credentials at the expense of real policy.