People will call tonight’s Democratic presidential debate boring, too issues-oriented, and lacking catchy moments. And that wasn’t a bad thing for Democrats. In fact, it was a good thing. The debate was not about a group of people tearing each other down; instead it was a debate about ideas. And that’s perfectly acceptable in a democracy. Viewers—prospective voters—heard candidates’ ideas, policy proposals, and the manner in which they differed from each other. What did they not see? Name calling, personal attacks, and petty politics.
Most people vote for president based on who they think will be a strong, effective, steady leader who communicates effectively, compassionately, and on a level that most Americans can relate to. They do not elect the best entertainer. This is even true when the country elects an entertainer! (See Ronald Reagan, known as the Great Communicator, not the Talented Actor.)
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were surely not as entertaining as Donald Trump. Instead, the Democratic candidates for president looked…well…presidential. That is a huge win for the Democratic Party. Even the lower tier candidates—O’Malley, Webb and Chaffee—looked more presidential than the memorable performances from this year’s Republican debates.
Admittedly, this is a disservice to some Republicans. Many candidates have climbed the debate stage—varsity or J.V.—and wanted to talk issues and a vision of America’s future. Instead, they were overwhelmed by a tsunami of an abrasive personality that overshadowed real substantive policy discussions.
Instead, the Democratic debate told us more about Republicans than Democrats. The debate reinforced pre-existing stereotypes about Republicans—that of a party in disarray. The presidential campaign is dominated by a laughable candidate who overshadows all other candidates not by the virtue of his ideas, but by the force of his personality and his magnetism of media attention. In the meantime, serious candidates are the victims of a politics more interested in entertainment and less in electability.
At the same time, matters grow worse for the Republican Party. The House of Representatives is neutered from overcoming a leadership crisis born from the resignation of John Boehner. Rather than smoothly transitioning to a new House Speaker, Republicans are spinning their wheels and fighting as hard with each other as they typically do with Democrats. The result has been a party that has thrust before the American public an image of a party ill-equipped and unwilling to take on the task of governing. That is a challenge Republicans are struggling to overcome, and Democrats tonight made the challenge even harder for the GOP.
Rather than continuing the circus environment of their previous two debates, the GOP should step up and do something unheard of in the polarized circles of today’s politics: take a cue from across the aisle. If the GOP debates looked more like tonight’s Democratic debate, it would do much to tear down the wall of stereotypes about Republicans’ lack of readiness to lead—a label that couldn’t have been fathomed on the party of Reagan 30 years ago.
The starkest contrast between the parties tonight occurred when Sen. Bernie Sanders said, the American public is sick and tired of hearing about her (Clinton’s) damn emails. How would that line have been delivered in a Republican debate…from one Republican to another? It would not have been mature; it would not have been nurturing; it would not have been cooperative. It surely would not have ended in a sincere handshake. It would likely have been a nasty, personal attack launched in a vain effort at political gain.
What Americans saw tonight from Democrats was a party ready to lead. They saw candidates who were not best friends, but were not worst enemies. My former colleague, John Geer, wrote a book highlighting the difference between pure attack ads and ads that show differences between candidates. Geer argued that the latter helped inform the electorate about their choices in a manner that advances democratic values. Tonight, those “ads” came from the lips of the candidates themselves and offered candidates clear choices without hateful speech and petty personal sniping.
Those are the types of distinctions voters want to vote for, and so far in the campaign season, American voters have only found that distinction from one party. The GOP is not that party. Republicans have 13 months to turn that around. Tonight, Hillary Clinton, et al, offered a guidebook on how to do just that. It’s in Republicans’ hands—and the hands of the Donald—as to whether they will adopt that approach and save their party and their chances at occupying the Oval Office.