Frank Bruni: The Democrats have a politeness problem

(Ben Wiseman | The New York Times) If Democrats want to run their best candidate against Donald Trump in 2020, potential nominees must take off the gloves.

Twice near the start of the last Democratic presidential debate, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News tried to pin Elizabeth Warren down on whether her vision for Medicare for All would require a middle-class tax increase. Twice she didn’t answer him. It was the perfect opening for one of the other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination to charge her with evasiveness and force her to reckon fully with the costs of her ambitious plans and the profound difficulty of enacting them. None of them took advantage of it.

Warren condemned the corruption of the political process by moneyed interests. I kept waiting for one of her rivals onstage to point out that before she swore off private fundraisers organized by rich donors, she depended on them for her two victorious Senate campaigns, raising enough cash to transfer $10.4 million in leftover funds to her 2020 presidential bid. But no one made a peep.

As she surged toward the front of the pack, the candidates in her wake watched politely for the most part, not confronting her with the tough questions that, if she faces Donald Trump in the general election, he’ll surely hurl at her. That has to stop.

At the debate this coming Tuesday night, they should grill her — and one another — with less delicacy than they have exhibited to date. Assuming that Trump lasts until November 2020, he’s going to use every potentially unflattering detail of his opponent that he can dig up, along with the usual heap of lies, to attack him or her. The nation can’t afford for those attacks to be successful. So now is the time, well before the voting in caucuses and primaries begins, to size up the various Democratic candidates’ hypocrisies, half-truths and vulnerabilities. Perhaps more important, it’s the time to discover how persuasively they can explain the parts of their biographies and records that cry out for some explanation.

I began this column by focusing on Warren because she seems to be the candidate with the most momentum at the moment and, based on the current state of play, she could very well be the nominee. But everyone in the relatively changeless Top 5 in the Democratic field — Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg — hasn’t been pressed by rivals on some matters that warrant more attention.

Buttigieg has made an argument for his youth — he’s 37 — as an asset, and he boasts of crucial executive experience from his seven years as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. But it’s a city so small that he won his second term with 8,515 votes. He’d probably need more than 65 million to ascend to the presidency. One of his rivals would be right to ask him: What should give Democrats confidence that he has that kind of jackpot in him? What gives him the confidence, especially given his strained relations with black residents of South Bend and the coolness of black voters nationwide to his candidacy?

Someone should pin Harris down on why her initial statements about Medicare for All were so contradictory, just the way Tulsi Gabbard, in a July debate, challenged her on aspects of her work as the district attorney of San Francisco and then as the California attorney general that don’t fit neatly under the “progressive prosecutor” mantle that she claims. Gabbard’s engagement of Harris on that issue stood out because few candidates poked that directly and forcefully at their rivals’ vulnerabilities.

Harris’ engagement of Biden, in a June debate, on the issue of federally mandated busing to desegregate schools stood out for the same reason. And it shed important light on both him and her. He struggled to respond effectively, demonstrating how dulled some of his political skills were, while she made subsequent comments that raised questions about just how divergent their positions really were. Democratic voters came to know both candidates better and to be able to assess them more accurately. And that’s the whole goal of these debates.

“Other than Harris going after Biden and Gabbard going after Harris, they have been very timid,” said Bob Kerrey, the former senator and Nebraska governor who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. Part of that, he said, is the impossibility of a deeply substantive debate among 10 people, which is how many were onstage for each of the June, July and September debates. The coming debate will have 12 people onstage.

And timidity won’t do. “Trump will be well funded and ferocious,” Kerrey told me. “If a Democratic candidate wilts under the warm attention and criticism of another Democrat, they will not be able to stand up to Trump.” And if that criticism goes too far, bleeding into gratuitous nastiness, “the audience will discipline them,” he said. He mentioned Julián Castro’s obvious insinuation in the debate last month that Biden was in serious cognitive decline.

That went too far. It was counterproductive, because it didn’t bring to light something about a candidate that wasn’t accessible to voters. That was true as well of Eric Swalwell’s “pass the torch” hectoring of Biden, in a June debate, as a politician who was overstaying his welcome. Voters know that Biden is 76 and has spent more than four decades of his life in public office. Swalwell wasn’t exposing some secret that had been swept under the rug; he was just stamping his feet.

Many anxious, Trump-horrified Democrats take the view that the candidates should tread lightly on one another. “When we know that President Trump will be spending his money to discourage Democratic turnout more explicitly and underhandedly than in any other modern campaign, why would we want any candidate to spend time persuading Democrats of how bad other Democrats are?” asked Jack Markell, the former governor of Delaware. “The difference between all of the Democratic candidates is dwarfed by the difference between the Democratic candidates collectively and President Trump.”

Many of the readers who write to me agree with him or go even further: They want to see, hear and revel in nothing but loving encomiums about Democrats vying for the White House. Some of them believe that Hillary Clinton was badly hurt by her battle with Sanders in the last Democratic primary, and that we’re where we are as a result.

But her wounds would have mattered less if Sanders had rallied more enthusiastically to her side once she’d won the nomination. I urge the losers this time around to get in line pronto. And I think it’s extremely risky to spare the next nominee the sort of tough examination that will let us know if we’ve elevated the most broadly appealing, durable, fearsome Trump slayer.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Every day, new revelations about the Ukraine sordidness come to light. Every day, the president acts in impulsive, imprudent, unhinged ways. Maybe that means that any Democrat can beat him. But I’m a bit of a pessimist and cautious to a fault. I think it means that we cannot afford to pick the wrong person.

Everyone in that Top 5 has liabilities. It’s possible that Democrats would be on safer ground with any of the candidates below that tier — Amy Klobuchar, say, or Michael Bennet or Steve Bullock — who have won statewide elections in red, purple or purple-ish places. It’s also possible that Klobuchar, Bennet and Bullock lack the requisite spark and are bad fits for the moment.

The only way to know is to make sure there’s no premature coronation.

So Biden’s rivals onstage on Tuesday night should ask if him if anything that he and President Barack Obama did, or failed to do, inadvertently paved the way for Trump. I’d be fascinated, and potentially illuminated, by his response.

They should ask Warren how she can be sure that her morally just “wealth tax” will raise as much money and pay for as much as she says it will. And because she keeps stressing her passion for education, she should be pressed on how she swerved from past positions that essentially aligned her with Betsy DeVos to the opposite.

If she can’t answer the question well, let’s find out now, before it’s too late. If she can, she’s one step closer to wiping the floor with Trump.

Frank Bruni (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

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