The latest iteration of this perennial dread comes after Democrats had some passionate disagreements in this week’s round of debates, which featured some candidates taking exception to certain policy decisions made during the Obama administration.
The result has been an eruption of hand-wringing, accompanied and encouraged by confident predictions from Republicans that the 2020 general election will be shaped by what just happened.
So everyone needs to settle down. We want these people to argue with each other. And no matter who your favorite candidate is, if they earn the nomination they’ll be made stronger, not weaker, by fighting their way through this process. It should be as difficult as possible.
But that’s not how most people see it. After writing this piece about why it’s necessary for Democratic candidates to talk about President Barack Obama’s shortcomings, so voters understand that they’re grappling with complex governing challenges and can learn from the past, I got many comments from Democrats saying some version of “No, we should be focusing on Trump!”
As though the public is somehow unaware of President Trump’s shortcomings and won’t be sufficiently informed about them unless Democrats rail against them in a primary debate.
Obama allies were livid after the second night of debate this week, in some cases seeming to say that the former president should be treated with the same kind of unconditional worship that Republicans treat Ronald Reagan. The only problem was that none of the candidates “attacked” Obama; what they did in a few cases was discuss policies that even he would probably admit didn’t work out how he wanted.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that all the Democratic arguments have Republicans very excited: “The fissures within the Democratic Party had senior Trump campaign officials predicting that after the debate they would see a bump in their poll numbers in critical Rust Belt states.”
Meanwhile, the Times article continues, “Democrats could find themselves trying to rehabilitate a candidate who has been battered by continuous attacks for more than a year, much like Mitt Romney was in 2012 after he emerged from a long and bitter primary in a weakened position to take on President Barack Obama.”
Except that’s not what happened in 2012. Romney didn’t lose to Obama because he had taken too much abuse in the primary from the stinging rapiers of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. He lost because the economy was improving and Obama successfully painted Romney as a vulture capitalist who didn’t care about the fortunes of people who didn’t have car elevators in one of their three homes.
As for the idea that a clip from a debate of one Democrat attacking another will show up in an attack ad in October, is that really something to be afraid of? Think back to the presidential campaigns of the past. Can you remember the devastating attack ad featuring a clip from a primary debate that turned an entire election around?
Of course not. The battered candidate emerging from the primaries too wounded to win a general election is largely a myth (and before you object, sitting presidents facing strong primary challenges is a different kind of situation).
In 2012, one of Romney’s advisers said about the transition from the primaries to the general election, “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch — you can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.” The adviser got pilloried for it, but he was mostly right. The general election will have its own dynamics, its own issues — and its own controversies. It won’t be determined by what happened in one of a dozen primary debates.
So the better question isn’t “Will that debate exchange doom our eventual nominee?” but “What did that tell us about these people?”
The truth is that there is a strong case to be made that the entire election process shows us who is good at running for president but almost nothing about who might be good at being president. As an example, for all the attention we pay to debates, to get a bill passed, implement an ambitious policy change or navigate a foreign crisis, the president is not actually called upon to stand next to someone they disagree with and deliver canned one-liners and witty ripostes in response to stupid questions from cable TV anchors.
Nevertheless, the campaign is a test, and a particularly brutal one. But nothing the Democrats deal with from one another will be as harsh as what they’ll face next fall. If you bristle at your candidate being criticized by other Democrats, just wait until he or she is being deluged by Trump’s lies, innuendo, and race baiting — not to mention a media that could very well pull another “But her emails!” on the Democratic nominee, bludgeoning him or her with some trivial issue that has been transformed into a megascandal.
Democrats have to decide who has the policies they favor, who they think understands governing enough to be an effective president, and who has a vision that stirs their hearts. But they also need to know who can take the heat. So they shouldn’t head for the fainting couch at every sign that their candidates are in conflict with one another. That’s how this is supposed to work.