One of the more interesting questions during last night’s debate between ten Democratic presidential hopefuls was a question not about Trump, but about Mitch McConnell.
Several of the candidates were asked how they would deal in a scenario where they had the White House and Republicans still held the Senate. One by one, they all – very poorly – managed to dodge the question. Even Elizabeth Warren, who answered “Oh yes” when asked if she had a plan for dealing with McConnell, didn’t explain how she would deal with him. She just sputtered on and on about making sure the “will of the people” was recognized, as though the will of the people isn’t in play if they decide on keeping the Senate Republican.
The direct mention of McConnell did prove to pique the interest of the American public, it seems.
— GoogleTrends (@GoogleTrends) June 27, 2019
Meanwhile, Donald Trump – the man all these Democrats are trying to take on in 2020 – barely got a mention. There was a bit here and there, including a memorable moment when Jay Inslee called him the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States, but overall Trump was a nonentity in this debate.
That might be why he made this comment on Twitter.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 27, 2019
The reference to McConnell and the lack of reference to Trump means a few things. First, they are once again all but giving up on trying to win back the Senate. I think they are writing it off for this cycle, based on the question and their response to it. McConnell and the Republican Senate are here to stay until at least 2022, and they will work the best they can with that (or just refuse to work with it, which is actually the more likely case).
The second thing this tells us is that they are struggling to come up with an identity for themselves as candidates. They purposefully avoided mentioning him when it was so easy to throw his name in there and get the audience reaction they needed. Instead, they focused on policies and emotions entirely unrelated to him. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I think Julian Castro won the night – he tied his passion directly into Trump’s policies and how deeply they affected him on an emotional level. It worked.
But the other candidates didn’t do that, or at least they didn’t try. Yeah, during their closing statements, they talked about beating him and how they’d do better (and even then the references to Trump were weak). But they avoided the guy because they recognize they can’t just be the anti-Trump candidate. They have to actually be for something.
And yet, they struggled with that. Elizabeth Warren was a non-confrontational series of pre-recorded talking points. Corey Booker relied on his identity as a black man. Tulsi Gabbard tried to tie together her progressive views with her military background. Inslee relied on the specter of climate change. So on and so forth they went, relying on weak gimmicks to prop up their identity as candidates. That’s partially why many of last night’s candidates took to attacking each other. They were avoiding taking on Trump and tried to assert their dominance as a fighter without breaking character. It just didn’t work.
Tonight’s debate should prove to be different. There are strong identities there, and a lack of fear of taking on Trump directly. As a result, you’ll see that confrontation with the idea of Trump more than you’ll see confrontation with each other.
The last thing this means is that the Democrats are trying to run on ideas, but have no idea how to address those ideas. They are all-in for abortion, but even Warren straight-up refused to answer a question on how she’d deal with guns already sold to owners. You could tell she wanted to talk about confiscation/”buying back” of guns, but couldn’t. They were all in for open borders, but they couldn’t even agree on the U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
They don’t know what direction to go in, so they want to go in all the directions at once. It was confusing messaging, and I don’t think it’s translating well into the general public.