By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Maybe it would easier and less complicated to have all the Democrats who aren’t running for president debate.
Part of the problem with the two-night debate marathon that just ended in Detroit is that there were too many people on the stage. The result was a mess, a kind of slow-motion demolition derby that confused more than it illuminated.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
CNN has received criticism for the format, but it’s hard to see how the network could have devised something that would have served that many candidates and the audience than this approach did. Until the process winnows the field, it’s going to be hard to hold an event involving the candidates that dips below the surface in any meaningful way.
This shouldn’t be a surprise.
In 2016, the Republicans had a massive field of candidates, too. Their debates also were shambles, but they were shambles enlivened by Donald Trump’s successful efforts to turn the presidential race into a reality TV show. People tuned in to track the latest outrage.
Thus far, no Democratic candidate has been willing to debase himself, herself or the process in the way that Trump did. This helps the candidates and the process preserve dignity, but it doesn’t make for compelling television viewing.
That’s a problem for Democrats going forward.
They’re unlikely to beat Trump, regardless of who the nominee is, if the national discussion stays at a superficial level. No one eligible to run for president this time around can command attention the way the current president can. He is the master of the Tweet and the quick sound bite designed to provoke a response. He loves to say what he thinks or what he will do.
It’s the how that always trips him up.
That’s why, more than three years after he promised a wall along the Mexican border that the Mexican government would be thrilled to pay for, he’s still scrambling to find a way to start construction and stick the U.S. taxpayers with the bill. The same goes for his pledge to implement a new healthcare plan that would cover everyone at greatly reduced costs. Or his commitment to revitalize America’s struggling manufacturing sector.
On the surface, some of Trump’s pronouncements may sound alluring. Most fantasies do.
But people live in the world of facts, which is why President Trump has struggled to deliver anything of substance to his working-class base.
The Democrat who can beat Trump will be able to point that out. He or she will be able to drag Donald Trump away from his quick-hit, let’s-ignore-reality pronouncements and pull him back to the real world, the land where things don’t just happen because someone says they should.
So far, that Democratic candidate has yet to emerge – and it’s hard to see how she or he could in a field this crowded.
In Detroit, former Vice President Joe Biden performed better than he did a few weeks ago, but he looked as though contentious campaigning was something he was enduring rather than enjoying. He didn’t look like a guy who would enjoy mixing it up with a street fighter like Trump.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, demonstrated that she plays offense better than she does defense. She may be able to hit Trump harder than any other Democrat, but she has yet to show that she can take a hit and keep moving forward.
The two leading progressives – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren – made effective cases for showcasing universal healthcare coverage as a Democratic campaign centerpiece, but at a cost. Their dismissal of concerns about taking choices away from Americans and the costs of their plans as “Republican talking points” indicated that they really didn’t have answers for what will be, in fact, Republican talking points.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg did the best job of staying on message and then expanding on that message, but it’s still hard to see him as a figure who could unite a fractious party, particularly given that the only way he becomes the nominee is by dispatching rivals who waited for their shots a lot longer than he did.
But that’s the way things stand now.
If this crowded field shrinks to, say, about eight candidates, a lot could change.
Democrats should hope that happens soon.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.