Trump Takes a Back Seat to Policy at the Democratic Debate

The president dominates every aspect of American politics, but you wouldn’t have known that from watching the first batch of candidates last night.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The nation is in the third year of one of the strangest presidencies in its history, with a capricious chief executive who has demolished both the old guardrails around the office and many of the basic presumptions of American policy. His administration has been so abnormal that it has drawn the largest field of presidential hopefuls in modern history from the opposition party.

But you wouldn’t have known that from watching the first debate among those Democratic candidates last night.

The debate in Miami, featuring 10 Democrats, seemed to take place in an alternative political universe. In the real world, Donald Trump infiltrates every aspect of American political life, and most aspects of nonpolitical life. On the debate stage, he was barely mentioned. When he was, the candidates mostly offered the pro forma condemnations that opposition-party candidates always use about incumbent presidents they hope to unseat.

Julián Castro promised to reverse a Trump executive order on immigration and, as one of several candidates overeager to show off his schoolboy Spanish, promised to “say adios” to Trump. Amy Klobuchar said the president was insensitive to the economic travails of ordinary Americans. Several candidates said Trump had been hasty in withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran. Tim Ryan said Trump had broken campaign promises to keep jobs in Northeast Ohio. Beto O’Rourke charged that “President Trump has alienated our allies and our friends and alliances,” mustering all the rhetorical excitement, and nearly the precise wording, of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign against Barack Obama.

Elizabeth Warren, the highest-polling candidate on the stage last night, didn’t deign to mention Trump at all during the debate. (Warren, though no fan of Trump, offers structural critiques of flaws in American society that predate his presidency.) Cory Booker even bragged that Trump had signed a bill he sponsored.

Somewhere the Resistance was dozing off on a couch.

The hesitation to attack Trump head-on was especially glaring on questions that were unavoidably about him. When the moderator Chuck Todd asked candidates what they would do if the House did not impeach Trump, the hopefuls onstage—who had been testily jockeying for time all night—suddenly became far more restrained, generous, and willing to let their rivals speak.

O’Rourke, who has publicly endorsed impeachment, had the misfortune to draw that particular question; he filibustered with a meandering anecdote about a painting of George Washington. John Delaney, who had the only slightly better fortune to get it next, pivoted away as quickly as he could.

“I support Speaker Pelosi’s decisions she is making as speaker. I think she knows more about the decision as to whether to impeach the president than any of the 2020 candidates combined,” he said. “No one is above the law, and this president, who is lawless, should not be above the law. I will tell you the one thing when you are out doing as much campaigning as I have done, 400 events and all 99 counties in Iowa, this is not what American people ask us about. They want to know about health care and pharmaceutical prices and creating jobs in their communities.”

While Delaney name-checked Pelosi only in the first half of that answer, the second half bears her strategic imprint. During the 2018 midterms, many Democratic Party candidates for Congress chose to speak about bread-and-butter issues such as health care rather than make their races about Trump. They were very successful: Democrats won a huge victory in the House, restoring Pelosi to the speakership. Since taking over, Pelosi has tried to keep walking that road, dampening cries for impeachment and trying to return attention to a progressive policy agenda.

And why should the candidates focus on Trump? Isn’t this just the Beltway-obsessed perspective of pundits like me? Not really. Polls consistently show that voters are eager to choose a candidate who can beat Trump. They want candidates to talk about beating Trump. When asked to remove “electability”—i.e., the ability to beat Trump—from their choice of candidate, their selections shift significantly, suggesting that their focus on beating Trump is a leading factor shaping their choices. The voters Delaney is seeing at his stops in Iowa may be sincere, but they’re not all that representative of the Democratic-primary electorate.

The candidates, or at least the ones onstage last night, have chosen to stick with the successful 2018 Democratic strategy. (Two of the candidates debating tonight, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, have been more eager to spar with the president.) That’s intriguing and counterintuitive, and not merely because it indicates a belief that the candidates know what voters want better than voters do, as they self-report to pollsters.

Perhaps the candidates really do know better, and the focus on other factors may be a useful corrective. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s extremely effective leadership of the Senate to choke off Democratic initiatives has been an underappreciated force in recent American politics, but the candidates tried their best to change that last night, talking nearly as much about McConnell as about Trump.

Still, focusing on bread-and-butter issues makes a great deal more sense in 435 separate House races, each with local issues, in a midterm election. But the presidential election is inherently national and against, well, the president. Moreover, congressional Democrats have found they aren’t getting much purchase with their policy slate since taking over the House.

Interestingly, it was Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, who has heretofore been running an almost-single-issue campaign on climate change, who was most eager to talk about Trump. Languishing near the bottom of the polls and with little to lose, he eagerly took some swings at the president. When it came time to name the biggest threat to the United States, O’Rourke, Booker, Warren, and Castro all named Inslee’s pet issue, but he took a different tack: “The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump. There’s no question about it.” At other times, he mocked Trump for his skepticism of wind turbines and boasted that Trump had threatened to send refugees to Washington State. Whether Inslee’s bet pays off will become clear in the coming days.

As the election slowly ramps up, Democratic observers have worried that Trump’s ability to grab attention with outlandish remarks and actions will allow him to dominate the race, keeping the Democratic candidates and eventual nominee entirely on the defensive and always playing catch-up. That may be true—but it certainly was not the case Wednesday, when the Republican president was, fittingly, the elephant in the auditorium in Miami.