Sometimes the fights the moderators encourage are driven by polls. Since Pete Buttigieg has risen in some recent Iowa surveys, the moderators will likely try to get Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden to attack him, in the hope of creating a viral moment.
So here’s a structure each of us can use to evaluate the things the candidates are saying, no matter what distracting paths the debate might follow:
1. What exactly does the candidate want to do? This is the most simple and straightforward. After they’ve said their piece, do I understand what they’re suggesting in both the general and the specific?
We can think of three levels: the goal, the means and the particulars. So, for instance, Candidate A and Candidate B both want to give everyone secure health care; Candidate A wants to do it through a public-option plan and Candidate B wants to do it through a single-payer system; and each has further differences on what benefits would be included, whether you’d still be getting coverage through your employer, etc.
You might decide that if they’re committed to the goal, then the means and particulars aren’t dealbreakers, or you might care passionately about the particulars. But it’s worth considering where you ought to place the highest priority.
2. How are they going to get this accomplished? Candidates have different “theories of change,” but the dynamics differ on different issues. The forces arrayed against comprehensive immigration reform are different from those that want to prevent sweeping health-care legislation, for instance.
So how do they conceive of the opposition to each plan, and how do they plan to overcome it? What can they accomplish through executive action, and what requires legislation? What provisions can be passed in a reconciliation bill (which can’t be filibustered)? What will require 60 votes in the Senate — or the elimination of the filibuster? Have they considered the obstacles to effective implementation of the reforms they’re proposing?
3. How will things be different if they get what they want? How, for instance, would the American workplace change if their proposals on enhancing the power of workers become law? What kind of long-term difference would their climate change proposals make?
How would the process of governing change if their political reforms were enacted? What sort of difference in our national life would it make if the judges they want to appoint were on the bench?
4. Broader questions. Here are a few bigger questions to keep in mind. What’s most important to them? How do they think about the role of the government in people’s lives? What are their weaknesses, and how would that affect their performance as president?
Do they look like they can inspire and mobilize voters? How do they conceive of the Republican Party? How will they deal with the next iteration of the tea party backlash that will inevitably follow the election of a Democratic president?
We spend a lot of time thinking of candidates in relation to each other — is this one stealing that one’s support, is that one going to attack this one in the debate, and so on. But most of that is focused so intently on what’s happening this week or this month in the campaign that we can lose sight of how we should really be judging these contenders.
And I know, the response of many people to thinking about a debate this way will be “Booooooring!” It’s natural to be drawn to moments of conflict and to cheer for the candidate you’re already leaning toward.
But just remember: The whole point of this exercise is to teach voters something important about the candidates and help them decide who they should vote for. If we approach it the right way, we might actually learn something.