The 20 Democrats debating this week in Miami

In the first presidential debates of the 2020 election cycle, 20 of the candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination must make two contrasts — with one another and with President Donald Trump. The two-day extravaganza in Miami — Wednesday and Thursday of this week — gives each of the qualifying candidates a chance to separate herself or himself from the rest of the crowded field and an opportunity to show why he or she is better qualified to sit in the Oval Office than Donald Trump.

Joe Biden

Front-runner Joe Biden must come through without any more unforced errors such as citing arch-segregationist senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge as examples of politicians with whom he disagrees but still can work. “We got things done,” the former vice president said of Talmadge, while claiming Eastland never called him “boy.” Using a racial epithet familiar to probably every African American to describe the relationship of more than four decades ago must give voters pause about Biden’s engagement in current affairs. Biden’s propensity to put his foot in his mouth cannot be ascribed merely to age as his long career has been marked by numerous egregious gaffes.

The format of the debates is slam-bang, allowing none of the candidates time to make lengthy policy statements. Still, by demonstrating a grasp of policy, each candidate can show a gravitas and perhaps articulate differences with his or her rivals while providing a contrast with the buffoon who now resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Biden still has a wealth of good will within the Democratic Party, and he maintains a healthy lead in the polls, so he has less imperative to issue policy statements. Yet, his long career in politics, while an advantage, is also a disadvantage, for it opens him up to critiques by his opponents of votes he made and positions he took that are out-of-touch with current mores. As for the rest of the field, 10 candidates on the stage each night forces candidates to decide on the one thing they want the voters to know about them or their one signature issue, whether it be climate change, healthcare, income inequality, tuition debt relief, and so on. 

By avoiding personal attacks and name calling — both of which should be easy — the candidates can paint a vivid contrast with President Trump. A nuanced conversation about immigration — balancing security with humane actions that do not betray America’s heritage — will demonstrate the difference between the racist xenophobe in the White House and Democrats. And, a serious discussion of policy — showing that the candidates are both literate and thoughtful — proves their bona fides while calling into question Trump’s.

Three recent helter-skelter instances of Trumpian policymaking — or what passes for policymaking in the current administration — give evidence of just how unqualified Trump is to be president. On these issues — countering Iranian alleged provocations, raids to deport undocumented immigrants, and Mexican tariffs — Trump exercised a freewheeling governing style that sends mixed messages and undermines security. In all three, Trump employed brinkmanship in an effort to demonstrate that he is both the arsonist who lit the match and the firefighter who put out the blaze — a fancy way to say Trump created the problem in the first place, then tried to show statesmanship by solving it.

Image which Iran says is the downed U.S. drone

“I’m getting a lot of praise for what I did,” Trump said, explaining to reporters his decision to call off retaliatory raids against Iran for downing a U.S. drone that Washington said was in international airspace. In Miami, savvy Democratic candidates quickly will point out that Trump created the crisis with Iran by unilaterally pulling the United States out of the deal negotiated by President Barack Obama’s administration to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Democrats also will note that the best way to deal with Iran is to renegotiate a treaty resembling the Obama-era pact. Expect several Democrats to question the tick-tock Trump gave in his interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd of the run up to the aborted raid, from his mocking of the generals who advised him (“great people, these generals”) to his decision to call off the raid only when he learned, at nearly the last minute, he says, that 150 Iranians would die. Trump’s claim about timing was either a deliberate lie to provide him an aura of reasonableness (briefings give the president this information at the outset) or evidence of the chaos behind Trump’s decision-making. Either way, the Todd interview is fodder for the Democrats.

An ICE raid in Atlanta last February

Trump’s threat to direct Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to conduct mass arrests of immigrant families and subsequent two-week delay pending negotiations leading to congressional action will be critiqued at the two-night debate. The Democratic candidates will use their time to accuse Trump of hostage taking by tweet. Trump’s entire immigration policy evinces cruelty, with children in overcrowded detention centers denied toothbrushes and soap and lacking medical care another easy target at the debates. 

Democrats will criticize Trump’s Mexican tariff fiasco as further proof of a lack of coherence in administration policy. The president threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican goods entering the United States to force Mexico to tighten its southern border to stem the influx of migrants from Central America. The result of this self-imposed crisis: Mexico promised to do what it already agreed to do, thus allowing Trump to claim success for his policy. The arsonist again put out the fire.

Trump always manages to give his opponents ammunition, and Democrats in Miami will pounce. Whether this convinces enough voters — during the long campaign — to oust the incumbent from the White House is another issue. American voting preferences are evenly divided, with few votes up for grabs. The two parties are competing for a narrow slice of the electorate. For the eventual Democratic candidate, that means convincing the few truly independent voters that Trump should not be reelected. As for the Democratic candidates in Miami, each must distinguish himself or herself from the other candidates. Those processes begin this week in Miami.

Posted June 25, 2019


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