Two Weeks Out, Here’s What We Need to See in the Early Democratic Debates by J.E. Dean


The first national debates among 2020 Democratic candidates will take place on June 26 and 27 in Miami (televised on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo). The events will bring to an end the unfocused, somewhat tedious jousting among the 20 plus candidates who have entertained some, but bored many, over the last several months. The first debates, and actions that will happen immediately before them (some of which have already happened), will tell us a lot about the Democrats’ chances to topple Trump next year.

Here’s what to look for:

Candidates’ Pre-debate “issues” or stumbles.  Candidates stumble for various reasons, including tripping over obstacles placed by opposing candidates. Joe Biden is now facing such an issue—the Hyde amendment, relating to federal funding for abortions—that sets him up for having to defend an unpopular issue (among most Dems) rather than presenting positions on new issues that might win over more voters.  I’m watching for evidence of candidates engaging in such activity. I will hold them accountable.

Civility.  Arguably, Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination in the debates. He successfully ridiculed his opponents, openly giving them pejorative nicknames and attacking them on any basis, regardless of relevance.  We don’t need to see these tactics from the Democrats. Any Dems that engage in even a hint of this Trump-like behavior earn a demerit from me.

Intelligence. This was largely absent in the debates of both parties in 2016, but especially among Republicans. There were no in-depth discussions of any issue, at least that I can remember.  No new issues were introduced to the national debate. For the most part, little evidence of homework was provided, except, perhaps by Hillary Clinton who, in violation of the principle of civility, got ridiculed by Trump for being a policy wonk. Any candidates not showing an in-depth knowledge of substantive issues will not get my support.

Debate competency.  By this I mean that candidates should answer the questions that the moderators ask, even if it makes them uncomfortable. Sadly, this is a rarity in recent Presidential debates. I will reward the candidates who do the best here. I expect the majority of candidates will fail this one on most questions and in all debates.

Poise. The debates provide the public, especially the television-viewing public, with their first opportunity to see how candidates respond to pressure. In 2016, a number of Republican candidates self-destructed by evidencing panic over some questions—think about former Texas governor Rick Perry not being able to name the cabinet level departments he had previously proposed abolishing.  Some candidates will fail the poise test by trying too hard to say something witty or clever, or destroy someone, in an effort to stand out from the crowd of candidates. This lack of poise and any other behavior that evidences an inability to stay cool or demonstrate grace under pressure will earn my displeasure.

Sense of Humor.  Some academics consider humor an asset to leadership.  Executives having a sense of humor are viewed as more creative and better negotiators.   We need both in the White House. It’s been missing recently, at least according to the New York Times, which suggests that while Trump’s “humor” ridicules, legitimate humor points to the ridiculous. My advice to the candidates: If you have a sense of humor, use it.  Don’t take yourself too seriously and voters will respond to your ability to make them laugh.

Breadth of appeal.   Mitt Romney lost significant support when he was quoted as dismissing a large part of the American public as unlikely to vote Republican. These were the voters whom he viewed more interested in welfare, public handouts, etc. than in good government. His comments alienated many, including myself.  Democrats choosing to run as “the woman’s candidate,” or casting their candidacy as representing good versus evil—think “billionaires versus the middle class” or a crusade against corporate America–will not enjoy my support. We have had enough divisiveness over these past few years. A successful candidate can embrace “women’s issues,” criminal justice reform, civil rights, and compassionate immigration reform without vilifying part of the voting electorate whom they assume are too prejudiced, or stupid, to vote for them.  

These are but seven standards with which to evaluate debate performance.  There may be others, less tangible things such as “looking Presidential” or showing an aggressiveness that could be presumed to match that expected from Trump in the inter-party Presidential debates next year. I am interested in what readers of this piece would add to my list.

Because I already have preconceptions of what issues will trip up most candidates, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether I view any individual candidates as favorites to “win” the first debate.  I do. I have been impressed with the quickness, discipline, and knowledge of Pete Buttigieg in interviews. Amy Klobuchar’s handling of SCOTUS nominee Kavanaugh, and her experience as a former prosecutor, suggest she will do well in the poise category. Biden brings experience to the table. Sanders brings both passion and substance.  His agenda is perhaps better understood than that of any other candidate.

On the negative side, I have low expectations of Beto O’Rourke. Unless the debate format includes allowing candidates to climb onto a tabletop, he will most likely be out of his element. Although Elizabeth Warren seems to be gaining momentum, she is viewed as a whiner—unpresidential—by many voters.  If she reinforces this perhaps unfair stereotype, she may lose that momentum. Then there are candidates Cory Booker and Kristin Gillibrand. I don’t know what to expect from this pair. Neither has yet to explain why they are running. Unless they address this, it won’t be long before they exit.

I have left out a number of other candidates, including the talented and interesting Kamala Harris.  A book could be written if each of the other candidates were to get their due with an in-depth look at their backgrounds and qualifications.  I’m also not discussing issues in this column. Policy expertise, as noted above, is important and, for intelligent voters, positions on individual issues—health, the environment, the economy, defense, civil rights, criminal justice, and drug policy—will be determining factors in choosing a candidate.   More about that in a future column.

Let’s hope the debates later this month suggests that party unity is in the future and that any plan to defeat Trump with a “fight-fire-with-fire” strategy is rejected.

J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor.  For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy. He is the former chairman of the National College Access Network (NCAN), a group promoting success in higher education among underrepresented groups, and KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a national leader in strategic foresight and education innovation. He is an advocate for the environment, education reform, civic public debate, and good government.



Letters to Editor

  1. Bill Anderson says

    “Debate cmpetency” and “Poise”, taken together, mean “the more polished liar.” Not good candidates for the presidency. We have been exposed to far too much of that nonsense in the last eleven years. Rhere are no announced democrat candidates for the presidency in the 2020 elections who are capable. They all need yo retreat and forfeit the office to the capable current occupant, thus saving so much embarrassment. futile effort and money.

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