What We Expect to Happen at Tomorrow Night’s Democratic Presidential Debate

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[What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a Slack discussion between Civic Ventures coworkers Zach Silk, David Goldstein (Goldy), Nick Cassella, and Paul Constant.]

Paul: Okay! So the very first Democratic presidential debates are tomorrow night, and I have no idea what to expect.

Goldy: What is this “Slack” thing? I think I remember something like this on Compuserve. Or was it Prodigy?

Paul: At first, I thought Hillary Clinton was going to be all over Bernie Sanders for his lackluster record on guns, but it looks as though Sanders is going leftward on guns now. So what’s this debate going to look like? Is it going to be all email servers and Benghazi?

Goldy: No, not just email servers and Benghazi. Maybe they’ll get to some important issues, like Whitewater.

Nick: I think Martin O’Malley comes out swinging on these two issues. I expect him to spend most of his air time hammering Hillary on her trustworthiness and authenticity. Will that strategy work? I doubt it. I think it will make O’Malley look desperate, especially as Bernie and Hillary talk about policy solutions, as opposed to personally attacking one another.

Zach The Republican field lends itself to a carnival vibe—complete with a barker named Trump. By comparison, this will seem civil, thoughtful and maybe even serious. In some ways, these early primary debates are a reflection of the essential qualities of each party’s electorates. Elephants = conservative AM radio / Donkeys = NPR.

Paul: I’ve been dreading this debate in a way that I’ve not dreaded the Republican debates. In part, I worry because CNN is hosting it, and CNN is terrible at hosting debates. They lack tenacity and credibility on issues, they focus on personalities, and they try to start fights. I hate to say it, but Fox News generally does a better job with presidential debates.

Zach: But I do think Nick is right. O’Malley is likely the aggressor in this debate. He has important things to say but hasn’t found his voice or a venue to deliver it. This is his first big chance, but calibrating his tone will be tricky. Bernie and Hillary have much easier tasks.

Paul: I think you’re right, Zach, that barring O’Malley the candidates are mostly going to focus on issues. (Although maybe Lincoln Chaffee will take a swing or two, because ha ha ha what the hell even is a Lincoln Chaffee?) Although this piece seems to indicate that we could be in for a little bit of Republican-style sniping: “According to MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald, who reviewed their past debate performances, Webb is ‘humorless and combative’ with ‘an ability to aggravate opponents,’ and Chafee is ‘surprisingly ferocious.’”

Goldy: I think O’Malley’s job is to go after Sanders, not Clinton. He needs to be ​the alternative to Clinton, before he can run as ​an alternative to Clinton. To do this, he needs to sell himself as the progressive alternative who can actually win in the general, not just among the Democratic base.

Paul: That’s a good point, Goldy. But if there’s an undercard explosion of tempers, that could easily consume O’Malley, who will likely (and, most would argue, necessarily) be in me-too mode. I hope that this isn’t the case. This debate isn’t going to ignite a ratings fire, so hopefully the tone will stick more closely to the NPR side of things, focusing on specific policy differences.

Goldy: I guess my point is that this isn’t a clown car like the Republican primary, where there is no clear and credible frontrunner at the moment. Clinton is far and away the Democratic frontrunner. O’Malley’s only hope (same with Webb and Chaffee for that matter) is to sell himself as a more credible alternative Clinton than that damn socialist/atheist Sanders is. What I’m really looking for in this debate is ​how​ O’Malley (and Clinton) distinguish their economic program from Sanders’. Will they cheer the hearts here at Civic Ventures and go full Inclusive? I suspect O’Malley might. But will Clinton explicitly embrace that narrative? It would be a good way to distinguish here from Sanders’ Ye Olde Timee lefty rhetoric.

Zach: I agree, Goldy. It’s a fine line: O’Malley needs to throw shade on Bernie without explicitly insulting him (and thus his voters) while presenting himself as a more electable progressive alternative to Hillary. I am not arguing he is more electable or more progressive, but that should certainly be his brand. This is also the brand that will be attractive to the sizable slice of the Dem electorate who volunteer they will vote for Biden (even though he isn’t in the race)… Consolidating the Biden vote would seem to be task #1 tonight for him while making the clear case that he is a safe harbor for Bernie voters.

Nick: I can already see the “Martin O’Malley surge” articles being written. Honestly, he has nowhere to go but up after this debate. He’s polling at 0.6% nationally.

Paul: So what are Clinton’s people telling her she needs to do right now? Is there anything she can do to force back this nonstop tidal wave of bad press she’s been getting, seemingly, for the last six months? Does she embrace inclusive economics, or spend most of the debate moving leftward in other ways? Or does she pander for the votes in a ​look-I’m-human-too kind of way?

Nick: Hillary has a strategic choice to make going into this debate: 1) Combat her image as being untrustworthy and inauthentic or 2) embrace her “fighter” mentality. I think she goes with the latter. Expect to hear about the “four fights” she highlighted at her campaign launch.

Goldy: Well, one of the inherent advantages of the inclusive economics argument is that it allows one to embrace the broader progressive agenda while arguing outside the classic “lefty” narrative. Whether Clinton takes advantage of this, I don’t know.

Zach: If she returns to the themes of her campaign launch speech, she’ll present a fighter who is best equipped to fight for you in this modern economy. The bummer about the never-ending cycle of email news is that it hasn’t allowed her to get any momentum from what was an impressive framing of the 2016 election in that opening speech. She understands the economic stakes and has articulated them very clearly. The more we hear that tomorrow, the better for her and the country. She has a more nuanced critique of the modern economy than the other candidates—and she has the battle scars to prove she knows how to fight and win. The challenge for her will be pivoting back to all of that in the face of CNN-style debate management.

Nick: I completely agree with Zach. I doubt Clinton fully utilizes the middle-out language we’ve been advocating for. Her messaging on the economy will most probably be: “Look, the game is rigged. The economy has gotten better under Obama, but that is not translating into more money in the pockets of working Americans. As president my number one priority will be making sure that wages increase not just for the 1% and CEOs, but for all Americans. When all of us do well, the nation does well.” By framing her economic prescriptions in this way, she’ll be able to present herself as a fighter and an advocate for the middle class, while also satisfying the far-left’s appetite for anti-Wall Street rhetoric.

Paul: If everyone keeps it civil tomorrow night, I expect the media coverage will likely tend toward the “no fireworks at last night’s debate…” kind of headlines, which are maybe my least favorite kind of debate headline. (My other pet peeve debate analysis? “He didn’t hit a home run…” Well, no he didn’t. It’s a debate. If he hit a home run, that would be kind of weird, wouldn’t it?) But I think a substantial, meaty debate free from personal attacks would serve the party well. It would certainly differentiate the Democratic presidential candidates from the Republicans, and it would establish them as the party of responsible adults. No matter who “wins” or “loses,” I hope the candidates stick to issues that Republicans are afraid to touch: serving the middle class, fighting inequality, creating growth for everyone. That’s what Americans most want to hear, and the Democratic candidates are poised to deliver that message.

Paul Constant

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