This week, we unofficially/officially begin the process of electing the next president. Tonight and tomorrow night, 20 of the Democratic candidates will be meeting on a debate stage for the first time. It’s the first of probably dozens of such events before the Democrats settle on a candidate next spring.
Ronald Reagan used to talk about what he called his “11th Commandment.” It was: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” The Democrats, I think, would do well to adopt a similar stance regarding their own party’s competition.
I’m a long way from making up my mind about who I would pick from the 2020 Democratic field. To be honest, I rarely settle on a candidate early in the primary process. In 2008, I literally didn’t decide between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama until the day of the primary. And usually I don’t have to pick someone early on; I live in Missouri, which generally falls about in the middle of the primary process. Next year, fully 21 states will weigh in before March 10, when Missouri gets to vote.
But even if there’s still a competition by then, the reality is that the difference between the many Democratic candidates is minuscule compared to the difference between ANY of the Democrats and President Trump.
Most of these candidates generally agree on the important stuff: we need to do something about climate change, we need to make the tax system more progressive; we need to radically improve access to health care; and we need to eliminate the inherent racism in our society. Beyond those issues and a few more, the stuff they end up arguing about is really on the margins of what’s important, relatively speaking. So it’s not too difficult for me to imagine wholeheartedly supporting ANY of these candidates, should they get the nomination next summer to run against Trump. I certainly won’t be tearing any of them down in order to boost someone I might prefer.
But we know it’s going to be a hugely negative general election campaign. Trump is already trying out his cutesy nicknames for the various Democrats. (Ever notice that his nicknames are really just projections of his own shortcomings: “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco”?) And we know from the 2016 campaign—and every day since—that Trump has no restraint when it comes to attacking anyone who gets in his way, using lies, distortions and all kinds of misplaced blame. Things are going to get ugly by a year from now.
The thing is, the ugliness doesn’t need to come from the Democrats, and they certainly don’t need to spread it among themselves. If the candidates start dragging each other through the mud now, that will make it that much easier for low-information voters in 2020 to start thinking in terms of “the lesser of two evils”—an oft-used and always inaccurate phrase that doesn’t describe any of the elections in my lifetime, at least.
The 2016 primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders left a lot of scars, and a lot of the bad feelings stuck around long after the party convention, to the benefit of the Republicans. It turns out, though, that some of that animus during the primary was helped along and amplified by the Russians, working to sow divisions in the Democratic Party; we learned this from the Mueller Report. We can count on the Russians being back in 2020.
The Democrats actually have a positive message to put forward. And I think we as voters should pledge to support those candidates who can best articulate that message, rather than those who are the best at taking down their opponents.