Preceding the Democratic debates in Ohio were a host of complaints and barbs about the Democratic field. ‘There are too many debates,’ some say. ‘Twelve candidates on stage is too crowded’ became a media narrative. And while the Democratic debates have been imperfect, for sure, their absence would be devastating for the Democratic Party.
That’s because criticism of ideas is essential to strengthening the policies of the candidates. Pushing candidates—of either party and for any office—to think about their proposals in terms of actual effect, viability, and detail is critical to improving American public policy. At the heart of many of the punches landed among the candidates was a genuine critique of ideas. Andrew Yang’s plan for monthly stipends to Americans was criticized for not providing job skills or the dignity of work. Bernie Sanders’s job guarantee plan was criticized as unnecessarily swelling the size of government. Elizabeth Warren’s support for Medicare-For-All was attacked for being vague on ideas and big on promises. Amy Klobuchar’s tax plan was dinged for not getting to the root of where wealthy people make money. Tulsi Gabbard’s position on exiting from Syria was broadly panned for being short-sighted and leading to the slaughter of Kurds.
Seeing and hearing candidates stumble through their answers is not a fatal flaw in the primary process. Instead, it reveals candidates who may not be ready to be the nominee in a general election campaign or to stand on stage to debate Donald Trump. A small number of debates, a smaller debate stage, or a less diverse field of candidates would help ensure that the eventual nominee is under-prepared and his or her ideas are under-vetted.
Toward the end of the first hour, Cory Booker stopped the flow of questions and answers to declare that those criticisms were dangerous and that “tearing each other down” for having different ideas would ruin Democrats’ “one chance at making Donald Trump a first-term president.” And Cory Booker could not be more wrong. Individual Democrats’ ideas face challenges. Some ideas are not well thought out or lack important details, some may have long-term appeal but have absolutely no chance of passing any time soon. And some Democrats struggle to communicate their ideas in any effective way for the American public.
Elizabeth Warren was ultimately the target of many of the sharpest attacks in this debate, mainly from Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tulsi Gabbard. This focus reflects both her emerging front-runner status and an effort not to wound Joe Biden after he spent two weeks in the president’s crosshairs. At moments during tonight’s debate, something happened to Elizabeth Warren that has not happened often in the previous matches: she stumbled. Although Warren had some very strong moments, she looked like an inside-the-beltway, career politician when she was unwilling to answer whether her healthcare plan would raise taxes. That slippery answer was made even more obvious when Bernie Sanders was blunt and clear about his tax increases. However, this is not the death knell of the Warren campaign; instead, it shows the senator where to improve. And many candidates left tonight’s debate with some homework assignments on how best to improve their plans and focus their ideas.
Nowhere was this lack of focus and detail more obvious than in the initial discussion of the Trump-ordered American withdrawal of special operators from Syria. The topic was an obvious one to be asked. Candidates had nearly a week to prepare fully for it, and several of the answers were scattered. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders powerfully brought the conversation back to the president, while delivering a strong and coherent answer. Pete Buttigieg used a spat with Tulsi Gabbard—the only two veterans on stage—to show the Hawaii congressperson’s distance from both the party and the mainstream position. Others needed to do better.
The question that prompted some of the best answers nearly across the board was evidence of the importance of vetting. When moderators asked about women’s reproductive rights—an issue at the soul of the Democratic Party and one that every candidate has been talking about for years, if not decades—almost every candidate showed polish, poise, focus, passion, and coherence. Why? Because the Democratic Party has been vetting these ideas for years and so have the candidates.
In one moment, the debate did the work in real time. Joe Biden’s first answer on Syria was finger-wagging but weaker than it should have been given his vast experience in foreign policy as a senator and vice president. However, when debate moderators returned to him on the topic, he gave a much stronger, pointed, and Trump-focused answer and one that had the authority behind it that none of the other candidates could muster.
So, enough of the nonsense discussion that primary debates are a bad idea and that they weaken a party. Also, dispense with the idea that it’s disastrous if a candidate—particularly a top-tier candidate—stumbles or offers some bad answers. Any party going through a primary, especially to take on a sitting president with the benefits of incumbency, the backdrop of Air Force One, and non-stop coverage of his words or tweets, should embrace a robust debate. A robust debate doesn’t tear down candidates; it vets them and their ideas in a way that can build them up to take on a president.
Deputy Director – Center for Effective Public Management
Senior Fellow – Governance Studies