At least two of my nearest and dearest have been in despair and disgust over the debates.
Let me try to soothe you with a few perceptions.
Yes, the number of candidates is irritating, especially the ones who under other circumstances wouldn’t be on that stage. But one of the many occasionally awkward aspects of democracy is on full display: you want to run for office, you get to run for office.
And, to repeat our desperate cliché, these are not normal times. With a lawless Trump in the White House and a corrupt government disintegrating as we watch, it’s fairly understandable why a big bunch of people have decided they, like Trump, could come out of nowhere and win the presidency. And save the world.
Back when Tom Perez, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, announced the rules for this campaign, I was in admiration. I still am.
First, let’s try to envision how he and the DNC might have culled the numbers of candidates…….. Um. OK, try this out: Tom calls, oh, I don’t know, Marianne Williamson, and says….
Says what? “We won’t let you show up and debate”? Or, “Please think about what you’ll be doing to the country if you insist on running.”
Now let’s imagine what Williamson tells her worshipers and what they all say on Twitter about how the Democratic Party is strong-arming her and knocking too aggressively on her door (oh this is real: see link above).
I personally would love to yank Williamson off the stage and never have to think about her again, but Tom Perez can’t do that.
So, while we may be incredulous and pissed off at the swollen egos of some of the people running for the presidency, we have to accept there’s no way — outside of Perez’s rules — to cut them out. We at home can hit the mute button when they yammer; but they do have the right to yammer. For now.
It’s like football training camp. Each team has maybe one hundred players on the field right now but on August 31, it must cut its roster to 53. And that’s what will happen when the DNC’s new standards for the next debate are applied by August 28.
The debates were not “food fights.” They were a series of statements of intention, of ideas, of differences. It was annoying because the format — a minute to answer complex policy questions? — was annoying, and because the moderators asked questions that were constructed to produce argument, rather than explanations.
And I think we were all infuriated that the moderators cut off the candidates in the middle of sentences. It felt rude, rather than time-bound.
Also, it was impossible to fact-check some of the statements and arguments until after the debate at which point I, for one, had forgotten what I wanted to check. And as a really smart journalist said, the arguments over health care were incomprehensible, even to people who understand the options.
A far more convincing format for evaluating candidates was Rachel Maddow’s individual interviews. I got a really good idea about the candidates who appeared with her — and nobody yelled.
But the slapdash, hectic business going on has a salutary purpose. I could not say it better or more concisely than did David Rothkopf, one of the passionate intellectuals I follow on Twitter.
Rothkopf will often publish whole articles on Twitter which he streams in Twitter-sized posts. Today, he wrote a long stream about what the Democratic Party and its candidates must do in this campaign. After he listed at length the key purposes and ideals for the Democrats, here’s how he reflected upon the purpose of these debates:
The key for Dems is to ensure that Main Street America understands these key distinctions between Democrats and Republicans. Details of these policies can be debated later. But the candidate the Democrats pick must be a compelling communicator of the above ideas…
…and one who instills real confidence and optimism they can get done. That’s why the primary process is so important. It helps refine details and test them and listen to what Democrats across the country want. But it also helps us see the intangibles of our leaders.
It reveals their character and intelligence and vision and energy. It answers whether they are great communicators, can think on their feet, can win a debate, can manage a campaign, can grow. These traits are not only important to beating Trump.
They are vital to leading for the eight years that follow. They are vital to tapping into the substantial majorities of Americans who support the Dems in each of the policy areas identified above. It is key to defeating once and for all the factors that led to Trumpism.
Rothkopf reminded me of a discussion I once had with my brother, a political and history wonk, about Adlai Stevenson, whom I had heard speak at a fund-raising function during his campaign against Eisenhower.
Ethan pointed out that Stevenson ran an elitist campaign, a marvel of wit and intelligence, but without a driving passion to win. He hadn’t demonstrated that he wanted the presidency, not enough to fight and scrap for it. He was patrician, he rose above kick-ass politics, and he lost, to an actual warrior.
Times have changed radically. I think we now can support and elect an intellectual who is witty and warm (Stevenson wasn’t warm) but who is also kick ass.
So when you listen to the next debate, think about what Rothkopf said. Listen for character, intelligence, vision and energy. Listen for a great communicator who can think on his/her feet, can win a debate, can manage a campaign and can grow.
There are a number of excellent people running. We’ll get a chance to vote twice — once in the primary and once in the general campaign.
One of these excellent people must become president.