It’s Debateable

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Dr. Malcolm Cross

The debates among the Democratic presidential candidates have begun.  What good will these debates really do?

Political scientists and historians who study presidential debates generally agree that in the primary stage of the presidential election process, candidates who are known the least may be helped the most.  Voters are normally more likely to vote for those they know; debates can help the unknown candidates in the race become better known, and hence more likely to attract voters.

But this is not guaranteed.  An unknown candidate who makes a bad initial impression may be unable to overcome it.  Rick Perry in the 2012 Republican primary debates never recovered from his “Oops!” moment—his inability, during one of the debates, to remember all three of the federal agencies he wanted to abolish should he be elected president.  Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, once considered a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, hurt himself in an early debate by appearing too ignorant and unprepared to be considered truly presidential.

But candidates who make strong showings in the debates can become more credible, and at least give themselves a fighting chance at a presidential nomination or at least a vice presidential nomination.  In 2016 Carly Fiorina went from being a second-tier contender for the Republican nomination to a first-tier candidate after giving a remarkable performance in an early debate.  She eventually faded anyway, yet would have been Ted Cruz’s vice presidential running mate had he won the nomination.  

So far, several candidates in the crowded Democratic field have helped themselves in the first two debates.  Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has apparently made a strong showing with her numerous and detailed public policy proposals.  Michigan Senator Amy Klobucher, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former San Antonio Mayor and Obama Administration HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard have also shown a solid command of the issues.  Perhaps the candidate who’s benefitted the most, at least from the first debate, is California Senator Kamala Harris, whose emotion-laden dispute with Joe Biden over Biden’s opposition to race-based busing in the 1970s, as well as his comments about working with long-gone segregationist Southern Democratic senators, has propelled her to the front of the pack, along with Biden and Bernie Sanders, the two best known candidates in the field.  Of course, whoever’s near or at the front of the pack will have plenty of opponents taking their shots at him or her from behind.

And while being knowledgeable, articulate and able to emotionally connect may be enough to win this year’s Democratic presidential nomination, it may not be enough for the putative nominee, whomever he or she proves to be, to handle the challenge posed by President Trump.  When Donald Trump announced his bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he immediately became the frontrunner in the early polling, mainly because he was the best known of the seventeen Republican candidates running that year, having attained almost universal name recognition as NBC’s brightest television star.  He maintained that status throughout the race partly because his opponents divided the conventional conservative vote among them, while he captured protectionists and white nationalists normally not considered part of the orthodox conservative movement.  

But in the Republican debates Trump also showed a special skill, not exhibited by any other Republican or any Democratic contestant today—the ability to get into his opponents’ minds and demoralize them with his mere presence and verbal acuity.  “Little Marco” Rubio and “Low Energy Jeb” Bush especially suffered.  Despite their abilities and achievements they seemed to shrink and withdraw in Trump’s presence.   And while “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz fared better, he could never escape Trump’s label for him (nor could “Crooked Hillary” Clinton in the general election).  To date, no Democratic presidential candidate has yet shown he or she has the mental toughness to be immune from President Trump’s specialized mind games.  Whether the upcoming debates will provide the mental toughening to take on the President next fall remains to be seen.

And the debates are not guaranteed to produce a Democratic presidential nominee who can cope with a couple of other aces President Trump has up his sleeves.  Indeed, the debates may make the emergent winner less able to do so.  We’ll discuss this matter in a future column.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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