First Debate Spotlights Democrats’ Vulnerabilities

It’s probably unfair to draw too many conclusions from last night’s Democratic “debate,” which had the feel of a badly organized pitch session.

by Will Marshall, President of the Progressive Policy Institute

Bombarded by all-over-the-map questions by no less than five NBC interlocuters, the 10 candidates didn’t have time to go deep on anything.

Nonetheless, the low-key encounter was revealing. On the plus side, all those on the stage showed they are better qualified by intellect and temperament to be president than Donald Trump. On the minus side, the conversation highlighted four large political vulnerabilities Democrats must confront if they are serious about evicting Trump from the White House.

Where was the economic uplift?

The candidates dwelled on all that is wrong with the U.S. economy, without speaking to its inherent strengths, especially in innovation and entrepreneurship, or offering plausible ideas for parlaying those strengths into better jobs, higher wages and more evenly shared prosperity across the country.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren set the dour tone with her familiar chastisement of profiteering corporations, whom she blamed for engineering economic inequality and corrupting U.S. politics. Her rhetoric, redolent of the “Occupy” movement of a decade ago, seems out of phase with what will soon be the longest U.S. economic expansion in history.

Warren’s strident business-bashing thrills left-wing activists, but offers little to aspiring working and middle class voters who know their prospects for upward mobility depend on a dynamic and growing private economy. What she offers is basically a more sophisticated version of Trump’s scapegoating, only with corporations rather than immigrants in the role of villain.

Only Ohio’s Rep. Tim Ryan made the politically crucial point: To beat Trump, Democrats must offer real economic hope to voters in the old industrial centers of the Midwest, where they lost the 2016 election. Instead of pedaling such “coastal elite” fixations as free college and government guaranteed jobs, he proposed that Washington commit to making America the world’s leading manufacturer of electric vehicles ordinary people can afford.

Statism is the wrong way to be bold.

With some notable exceptions — Ryan, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and formers Rep. John Delaney and Beto O’Rourke — the candidates spoke mostly about empowering the federal government, not people. They want to soak the rich and use the proceeds to pay for a nationalized health care system (Medicare for all), green jobs, “free” college and other new public benefits.

Leaving aside the nettlesome issue of how to pay for all this beneficence (the rich don’t have infinitely deep pockets), Democrats run a big risk by harnessing their ambitious schemes for reordering U.S. society to the instrument of federal power. “Americans’ trust in government to handle both domestic and international problems is at a new low,” the Gallup organization reports.

Democrats ought to think big and be bold, but too many conflate big and bold with centralizing power in Washington. Instead, they should think more creatively about solving economic and social problems from the ground up, by forging new problem-solving partnerships between innovative metro governments, civic associations and the private sector.

Open borders aren’t the answer to nativism.

On immigration, all of the Democrats last night rightly blasted Trump’s cruel nativism, and the appalling treatment of migrants and their children by U.S. border authorities. But they had little to say to Americans who may not support Trump’s stone-hearted policies but who also believe our southern borders should be secured and that our immigration laws should be enforced. On the contrary, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro seemed to be goading the other candidates toward his view that that entering the United States illegally should be downgraded from a criminal to a civil offense.

Citing the tragic drowning of a Salvadoran man and his young daughter in the Rio Grand, Castro accused fellow Texas O’Rourke of failing to “do your homework” by not favoring repeal of immigration laws that “criminalize desperation.” It was an emotionally stirring moment, but it’s unlikely that most Americans (including Latinos) will concede Castro’s implicit premise that people mistreated in their home countries have a right to come to ours. Democrats can beat Trump on immigration, but not by confirming his bogus claims that the party stands for “open borders.”

Stop putting U.S. voters into silos.

Finally, the debate showed that Democrats need to learn how to speak to the nation as a whole again. Some candidates last night showed off their Spanish and spent a lot of time name-checking favored identity groups, but this siloing of the U.S. electorate is not the path to building a majority in national elections. Sen. Corey Booker, for example, kept referring to “my community” as black and brown. The last time I checked, the state he represents in the Senate, New Jersey, still has plenty of white people too.

When it comes to identity politics, no one can or should compete with the nation’s top ethnic nationalist and polarizer-in-chief, Donald Trump. Instead, Democrats should reclaim the civic creed that unites Americans — our shared beliefs in individual freedom and equality that enable us to transcend group differences and turn our diversity into strength.

A Democratic politics of civic as well as ethnic, racial and gender inclusion is the key to making the party more competitive outside its coastal and urban bastions. And it’s the right way to make Trump pay for pitting Americans against each other so he can “win.”

Radically Pragmatic. We seek to advance progressive, market-friendly ideas that promote American innovation, economic growth, and wider opportunity.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store