These debates have a modest impact on the nominating process because there are so many debates and because the first votes will not be cast for more than four months, but debates provide some insight into the state of the race and what we might see in the coming months. The race now looks like one where the frontrunner is flawed and perhaps out of touch ideologically with both the Democratic Party and a majority of the American people, but also where second tier candidates are struggling to break through in such a crowded field, and where the progressive vote is largely split between Sanders and Warren. Some of this may sort itself out in the next few months, but the large and impressive field, could make this a long primary season.
On Thursday night, ten Democratic candidates will gather for the third official debate of this primary season. This debate will only be one night and include only ten candidates, so it should be smoother and more useful for potential voters. However, it is still likely that much of the debate will be taken up by detailed discussions of policy proposals on issues like health care, gun regulations or the environment. These discussions are worthwhile, interesting and give a good sense of what the candidates believe, but the emphasis on details belies the reality that presidents don’t make policy. They are merely part of a process along with congress and in many cases the states and the courts. These detailed discussions of policies seem like the right subject for the debate, but there are other bigger picture questions that are probably more important. Below are three questions that Democratic voters should be asking their candidates, but that might not be raised on Thursday night.
In the last few weeks, Seth Moulton, John Hickenlooper, Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee have dropped out of the Democratic primary campaign for president. Hickenlooper and Inslee both had resumes that in previous elections could have made them frontrunners for the nomination, but their campaigns never got any traction this year. Both also immediately turned their attention to other elections. Inslee will seek a third term as governor of Washington while Hickenlooper will run for the Senate in Colorado against Republican incumbent Cory Gardner. Moulton, like Eric Swalwell a few weeks earlier, has decided to run for his safe congressional seat rather than continue a presidential campaign he had almost no chance of winning. Gillibrand will return to the Senate.
As the 2020 election approaches, we will inevitably encounter more commentary reminding us how the future of the US is at stake. That is clearly true, because if Donald Trump is reelected the pace of democratic rollback will be accelerated, perhaps irrevocably, while a Democratic victory may just reverse that rollback and make it possible to rebuild a cohesive and democratic country. However, despite the future being at stake, the election itself will largely be a debate about the past.
The Democratic presidential debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights were without precedent. Twenty potential nominees, which did not even represent the full field, debated with each other over the course of two evenings. This field of twenty will be winnowed in the next months with a nominee emerging somewhere between April and mid-July of 2020. The debates are only one component of what will be a long campaign, but they are the most important and high profile to date.
Over the last few election cycles we have learned pretty definitively that we know a lot less about electability than we think we do. Our last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, were both viewed as axiomatically unelectable when they began their campaigns for the White House. Moreover, most candidates have both positive and negative and electoral traits so their overall electability becomes a post facto assessment rather than having any predictive value. For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton was very electable until she wasn’t. Similarly, had John Kerry beat George W. Bush in 2004, the punditry would have explained that as a war hero with years of experience he was the perfect candidate, but he lost narrowly, so we have been told he was a northeaster liberal with limited charisma and therefore a week candidate. Given this, when somebody tells you they think a particular primary candidate is electable, what they usually mean is simply that they are supporting that candidate.