The Democrats in These Debates Know What They’re Talking About

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Democrats, egged on by CNN’s moderators, found an awful lot of things to bicker about in Debate 2, Part 2 in Detroit. 

As usual, I’m hesitant to predict how any of it will play with voters – in part because voters will be affected by how the media assesses it and which clips will show up in heavy rotation on TV or go viral on social media. What I will say is that I thought there was a good chance that Joe Biden would harm himself in his pre-advertised decision to fight back against candidates who attacked him, but – whether he got the best of them or not – he handled it adequately, at least.

The biggest conclusion I have after now sitting through some nine hours of 21 Democrats going up against each other in two rounds this summer is the huge contrast between these Democrats and recent Republican candidates. Some candidates do a great job of explaining their plans – Julian Castro on immigration and criminal justice, Jay Inslee on climate, Warren on, well, everything. Some are not quite as sharp. But almost all of them, and all of those with polling or party actor support, demonstrated basic competence on public policy.

If anything, a long, painful early exchange over health care between Biden and Kamala Harris really pounded that in. Neither of them was particularly good at explaining their own plans or at effectively attacking the other. Neither is a health care wonk, or showed the detailed mastery of that particular issue that a specialist would have. One wag on Twitter suggested that Elizabeth Warren should jump on stage, interrupt, and explain both of the plans for them.

And yet … both Biden and Harris were firmly set in the fact-based world. There was no babbling about “the lines!” – as Donald Trump repeatedly did during the 2016 debates. There were, as far as I can tell, no lies about what Republicans were doing on health care. Despite not explaining the topic very well, there was a sense that both candidates had a fairly good grasp of the main policy issues involved. Sure, they spun, and they exaggerated, and they pulled things out of context. That’s what politicians do. But they knew what they were talking about. On other policy questions, over the four nights of debates, it was more of the same.

The thing is that it’s just a tremendous contrast with any of the recent Republican presidential fields. In fact, even those who have demonstrated basic policy competence tend to either dumb themselves down or throw in a bunch of nonsense. That’s why people who don’t know what they’re talking about – such as Trump – weren’t immediately laughed off the debate stage: Trump didn’t really stand out from the rest of the field when he was botching basics about public policy.

It’s not just Trump, of course; while John McCain and Mitt Romney were certainly well-informed about government and public policy, George W. Bush really wasn’t, and it took him a lot of time in the White House to get up to speed. 

A Democrat with that kind of ignorance would certainly stand out.

It may always have been true, as Matt Grossmann and Dave Hopkins have argued, that Republicans always were more likely to articulate ideology while Democrats were more comfortable talking about policy details. But the 1980 and 1988 debates were, well, a lot like the Democratic debates this year.  

Look, if you have conservative views, you’re not going to like these Democrats. I’m not suggesting you should. They’re quite liberal (even the ones running as moderates are pretty liberal, and several of them are pushing ideas that are far more liberal than what Barack Obama and congressional Democrats did when they had the chance). They support a lot of things that most Republicans strongly dislike. 

But Democrats can be proud of their candidates. They still aren’t particularly sharp debaters. Harris couldn’t find her rhythm this time when she was attacked; Kirsten Gillibrand had an attack on Biden backfire against her; Inslee still hasn’t learned how to pivot to climate on every question as a one-issue candidate should be able to do. The ones who survive will get better. That’s how it works. What they don’t need to do, because they have done it, is demonstrate basic knowledge of government and policy. And after two rounds, it’s worth pausing to appreciate that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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