Last week’s Democratic “debates” — featuring 20 contenders in four hours of Q&A over two successive nights of prime time broadcast — introduced the country to a number of formidable, experienced, intelligent and passionate presidential contenders. And while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren dominated the first night’s debate, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California did the same on the second night, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg also excelled, and came across as credible and substantive.
Having said that, can any of them — or former Vice President Joe Biden or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — defeat Donald Trump? And, if so, how would they do it?
To the consternation of his opponents, the president has a remarkable ability to play with information and facts, and to craft them into marketable memes that feed into the narrative he has developed. For those purposes, the first round of Democratic debates probably helped Trump more than they helped most of the debaters, since the jousting delivered valuable material for Trump to work with as he develops his plan to secure reelection.
That doesn’t mean the Democrats have lost. But if they are going to take on Trump, they need to do it in a way that grabs attention, commands interest and attracts voters. Complex plans and creative policy details threaten to confuse voters and can’t win against Trump’s black and white marketing themes. Democrats need to develop a similar binary approach, which can be easily digested by voters on healthcare, racism, the widening wealth gap, climate change, taxes, the economy, immigration and everything else. They’re not there yet.
Israel supporters and foreign policy wonks were disappointed that the two debates focused almost entirely on domestic policy. This was another reminder that the American voters’ interests generally end at the water’s edge. Still, the absence of reference to these issues —even rolled into discussion of related topics — stood out.
At a time when the Democratic Party’s commitment to Israel is under question, one would expect someone to have embraced Israel as this country’s most important and reliable ally in the Middle East. Yet, the word “Israel” wasn’t uttered once by any of the 20 contenders in the entire four hours of discussion.
What happened to support for the two-state solution that has been abandoned by the administration?
Where was the outrage over the destructive BDS campaign? What about the Saudi-orchestrated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi? And what happened to discussion about the troubling rise of anti-Semitism and related security concerns here and abroad? We read about these issues every day, including comments by most of the candidates. So, the eerie silence on these issues leaves us wondering.
The first debates were only the beginning.
As the field narrows and the campaigns become more focused, we look forward to more comprehensive discussion and more strategic presentations.