When preparing for a tough debate or interview, political operatives use what’s called a murder board. It’s the analysis of people who are meant to ask the toughest questions and expose weaknesses. Campaigns keep it private. No recordings, no documentation — it’s that revealing of a candidate’s mind-set.
In Tuesday night’s debate, we saw the Democratic candidates let the murder board loose for the entire nation to see. Watch Tim Ryan go after Bernie Sanders for his Medicare-for-All plan, only for the Democratic socialist to fire back defiantly, “I wrote the damn bill.” Or Elizabeth Warren, who, surrounded by moderates, struck back, “We are the Democrats, and we should stop using Republican talking points!”
As a Republican, I can appreciate the counterpoints from Rep. Ryan and Gov. Steve Bullock, who noted that decriminalizing border crossings and offering free health care and college to people who are in the country illegally would almost assuredly lead to President Trump being reelected. Democratic primary voters were the big winners because they got to see the full range of very progressive to moderate candidates highlight their policy differences, temperament and leadership.
Tuesday night we saw the moderates try to distinguish themselves from the progressive front-runners. Wednesday night will be the opposite.
Some came out swinging, as did former congressman John Delaney criticizing “wish-list economics.” Others were determined that the Democratic candidates must be united to take on Donald Trump, as Sen. Warren did in her opening statement.
However, it was the stark policy difference that took center stage between the progressive front-runners, Sanders and Warren, and the moderates. The divide in the Democratic party couldn’t be more on display — and former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris should be writing thank-you notes to all 10 participants for the preview.
The big question is not who the voters agree with more, though. It’s who will be the best person to take on Trump next November. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, people were asked what was more important: for Democrats to nominate someone who can defeat Trump or someone who would fundamentally change the way the economy works. A full 56 percent of respondents said it was most important to beat Trump — just 41 percent chose the economic revolution.
To beat Trump, Democrats must win independents and suburban women. That shouldn’t be such a challenge: Trump is hemorrhaging those voters, especially after his racist remarks against several congressional members of color. Even a majority of Republican women — 52 percent, according to a Fox News poll in July — thought Trump went too far.
Warren, Sanders, Ryan and Bullock showed they had the necessary thoughtfulness, policy chops and leadership skills tonight, and they will benefit from their debate performance. Like everyone else, I was looking to see what Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former congressman Beto O’Rourke were going to do to reignite their campaigns. Color me unimpressed, but they have the money and poll numbers to last another round.
Maybe Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar joins us in October too. But for Gov. John Hickenlooper, author Marianne Williamson and former congressman Delaney? It’s time to exit with grace, and with dignity.
Tuesday night we saw the moderates try to distinguish themselves from the progressive front-runners. Wednesday night will be the opposite, a battle between moderate front-runners like Biden and their progressive critics. Who will be left standing?
That’s not quite the right question. Because here’s the rub: No matter who wins these debates, the attention on them will likely disappear in the blink of an eye — or rather, with Trump’s arrival in Ohio for his own rebuttal rally on Thursday night. No one will be off-limits, and you can expect more than a few new nicknames, if the past is any indication. And while the Democrats square off now, they would do well to remember that, come next November, the only person who truly matters on their murder boards will be the president who has mastered, above all else, the strategy of hate and divide.