Now that the field has been set for September 12, we are likely to witness the first real event of the 2020 primary season. The debate will feature only 10 candidates, arguably still too many, and, more importantly, only one night of debate with all the candidates on the same stage. Each candidate will have more time to talk and comment on the remarks of other debaters. This will work to the benefit of some candidates and to the detriment of others.
The ten candidates we will see on the 12th are Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren and Yang. Pundits suggest the focus of the debate will move left due to the failure of several moderates to qualify, including Senators Gillibrand and Bennet, Montana Governor Bullock, Maryland’s own John Delaney, Governors Hickenlooper and Inslee, and Rep. Ryan.
Because the major left-leaning candidates qualified, a hard-fought scrum with some candidates seeking to out-bid others on the “boldness” of their proposals with others seeking to destroy others with “got-ya” type ambushes, is likely.
With regret, I’m prepared for the worst, especially from candidates for which anything less than a stellar performance will likely mean the end of their campaign. Beto O’Rourke comes to mind. He’s re-tooled his campaign to be more serious. Right. Maybe some righteous indignation highlighted by flailing arms for effect. Kamala Harris will most likely attempt to reprise her attack on Biden, possibly shifting the target to Warren or Sanders if she’s feeling feisty. Bernie will be, let me be clear, Bernie. Shouting, he will imply that anyone failing to join “his” revolution is betraying the 99 percent. Elizabeth Warren, steadily climbing in the polls and attracting larger and larger crowds at rallies, will stick to her currently winning script. She has a plan for everything, which makes sense for those who have concluded that both the government and the economy are fundamentally corrupt. I am not in that camp.
All these performances, should they come to pass, most likely will share one thing: They will fail the civility test. It should not be this way. Directly attacking other debaters, questioning their motives, or mischaracterizing their records ought to disqualify a candidate from participating in future debates. That’s not realistic but imagine a special panel of three credentialed Democrats could serve as judges and render an opinion after the debate. Candidates would have to agree to be subject to the rule as a condition of participating.
Of course, don’t expect anything remotely like this attempt at discipline to happen. Unfortunately, any performance not failing the civility test is likely to generate little notice and a drop in the polls. Loud and rude all too frequently, including in 2016, works. Civil and intelligent, often, doesn’t.
In a worst-case scenario, all ten candidates would be disqualified for future debates and the party would have to retroactively cancel the rule. That won’t happen in the next debate because at least four of candidates have practiced civility, at least to date: Biden, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Yang. Some would add O’Rourke, Castro and even Booker to the list, but are they really in the same class as the other four candidates in terms of civility?
Given the unlikelihood of a disciplined, civil debate, on the 12th, it will be up to viewers to hold individual candidates accountable. Does the debater portray a basic decency that would make them a model for young people? Does their debate performance suggest an ability to work effectively with others that might not buy into their programs or vision for the country? Will the candidate raise the level of debate nationally out of the gutter to focus on what is good for America and its future?
Most engaged voters already have a perspective and preferences among the candidates on policies and electability. They are less sure on civility. Many believe that only a bully can out bully Trump. These voters like Harris, Warren and Sanders. Others are looking for the opposite of Trump: Someone evidencing a predisposition to listen rather than shout and who talks to their opponents they way voters like to be talked to themselves. So far Biden, Buttigieg, Yang and Klobuchar best fit this description.
I will be focusing on candidates’ civility on September 12. Let’s hope for a civil a debate. The future of our country may not depend on it, but it’s a step in the right direction.
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.