Members Only | June 28, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Any Democrat Will Do

Thoughts on the first round of Democratic debate.

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Now that we have seen the first round of Democratic debate, I have a few thoughts to share. The first is about the political news media—it’s bad. So bad. Really bad.

How bad? Let me put it this way. If you asked me for the best way to misunderstand what’s going on in American politics, I’d recommend watching the cable networks. 

Most people doing “analysis” are just recycling talking points that may or may not reflect political reality, and even when they do, they end up distorting it. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, for instance, said the “real winner” of Wednesday’s debate was Joe Biden, because—and I’m guessing here—he was not present at Wednesday’s debate. That’s about as predictable and safe and misleading a summary as I can think of. 

There are keener minds at news networks—Rachel Maddow and Joy Reid, for instance—but even they are subject to the pressures that television bears on them. There really were no winners or losers over two days, but the TV demands to know! So “analysts” end up rationalizing their way to a conclusion, however daffy, which doesn’t help anyone. 

Victory trumps all.

My second thought after watching the debates is that Democratic voters should feel good about their options. The party is a big tent that got much bigger after the midterms. This week, we saw a range of views along the liberal political spectrum.

John Delaney, John Hickenlooper and Andrew Yang spoke for poles in the business wing. Jay Inslee for environmentalists; Bernie Sanders and Tim Ryan for the white working class; Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg and Bill de Blasio for gadfly mayors; Beto O’Rourke for idealists; Tulsi Gabbard for the anti-American fringe; Eric Swalwell, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennett for various shades of liberalism. But the people speaking for the mainstream of the Democratic Party, those who can synthesize pieces of everyone’s points of view, were pretty much who we expected. 

That’s my third thought. The debates didn’t reveal who the serious contenders were so much as confirm who we already thought were the serious contenders. These are Sanders, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. The candidates who got the most attention before the debates are going to get the most attention afterward. The exceptions might be Cory Booker and Castro, who performed strongly for different reasons. (I’d include Buttigieg here, too, because he’s a natural as exploiting the political power of the press.) And of these leading candidates, there is a spectrum of views to choose from. As I said, voters should be pleased with their options.

Another thing worth pointing out is that, from the perspective of voters with things to do other than pay attention to politics, the debate didn’t feature individual candidates so much as a composite Democrat who will challenge the president. Sanders and Biden are obvious exceptions, but most people most of the time could not identify, say, Harris. Most people, however, would get a good sense of what the Democrats have to offer from these debates (presuming they watched). We should be grateful that the party has a range of options for people looking for an alternative to Donald Trump.

That’s my final point. Nothing about these and future debates—not the terrible press, not the party, not the candidates, nothing—can be understood properly out of context, and that context is the guy sitting in the Oval Office. I sense that the desire among Democrats to defeat the incumbent is so overwhelming that normal competitive behavior is relatively restrained. Candidates frequently stepped back to note where they agreed, and how points of disagreement will determine where the party is going. I sense also a kind of solidarity among Democratic voters to hold back on picking their favorites for fear of undermining the party’s collective effort to beat the president.

This isn’t to say there’s no competition. Winnowing will happen one way or another. To that end, you saw De Blasio and Castro pushing the field to commit to various liberal principles and Democratic goals. To that end, Harris kneecapped Biden. It was just murder! She forced him to defend a mixed record, and he defended it in the worst way possible. Sanders, for his part, looked greatly diminished in the presence of so many high-quality candidates and in the absence of his perfect foil, Hillary Clinton. 

Winnowing will happen. Make no mistake. There can be only one. But bear in mind the Democratic Party’s overwhelming desire as the current president has another private meeting with Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump must be defeated. Victory trumps all. So pick a Dem, any Dem, because, honestly, for lots of people, any Dem will do.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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