Democratic Debate # 8: So Long, Iowa. Hello Mike? (With One Very Important Lesson PR People Should Remember)

Democratic Debate # 8: So Long, Iowa. Hello Mike? Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

The big news from the January 14 debate, the last one before the Iowa caucuses, was that there was no big news. Much to the disappointment of the cable political pundits, reporters and anchors, it was a mostly a Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum debate (or if you prefer, a peas in a pod discussion). That’s to be expected, because as the number of candidates dwindle it’s likely that the remaining ones, with minor policy exceptions, will agree with each other. Despite the media labeling candidates progressive or moderate, they’re all liberal, some more so than others, but liberal.

Before I opine on the Debate # 8, on February 7, here’s a recap of Debate # 7:

  • There was disagreement among the candidates on the deployment of troops in the mid-East, trade and how to expand health insurance, but not enough to have the candidates lash out at each other.
  • If I had to choose the candidate(s) who I thought stood out during the debate it would be Sen. Sanders and businessman Tom Steyer. Sanders differed from the other candidates because of his democratic socialist policy positions, many of which could pass as a left wing Democratic positions. Steyer, as he has throughout the debates, again brought a fresh new outsiders perspective that separates him from the insiders. As he pointed out several times, he is the only candidate that thinks global warming is the most important issue, and that he has advocated the impeachment of President Trump before anyone else.
  • While there was no highlight of the debate, there was a low light. It was when CNN’s Abby Phillip asked Sens. Warren and Sanders about the latter’s comment about a woman not being able to win the presidency. But the two senators refused to take the bait, Sanders again denying that he made the comment. However, the friendliness between the two senators that was         apparent in the other debates wasn’t evident.

In my opinion, nothing occurred during the debate that would get a voter to jump ship and declare for another candidate.

But stuff happened after the debate concluded, prior to Debate # 8.

  • After the debate, remarks between Sens. Warren and Sanders were made public by CNN, during which Sen. Warren accused Sen. Sanders of calling her a liar on national TV, regarding her saying that the Vermont senator told her a woman can’t win the presidency.
  • In its January 20 edition, the New York Times surprised the political establishment by splitting its endorsement between two candidates, Sens. Klobuchar and Warren. (The always politically correct Times could never be accused of age discrimination. But to coin a phrase, did the “long life experience” of two male candidates automatically eliminate them from consideration? In my opinion it should have.)
  • On Januaury 21, the Times reported that Hillary Clinton said members of the Senate disliked Sanders and declined to say if she would endorse him if he wins the nomination. She later said that she would support the Democratic nominee because retiring Trump was the most important thing.
  • Also on January 21, Sens. Biden and Sanders launched video attacks on each other: Biden said that the Sanders campaign was engaging in “dishonest attacks,” and Sanders, who has been attacking the former veep’s vote authorizing the war in Iraq, criticized Biden’s record on Social Security. In addition, a Sanders supporter, Zephyr Teachout, wrote an OP-Ed published January 20 in The Guardian saying that Biden has a “big corruption problem,” which the Vermont senator apologized for and said was not his opinion.
  • During an interview on January 22, Biden reminded TV viewers about Sen. Sanders record on gun control, which has been criticized in the past.
  • As the Iowa caucuses drew closer a “Sanders can’t defeat Trump” campaign was began by Mayor Pete.
  • But despite the sniping against each other by the candidates, it was a buzz about a non-candidate that was most intriguing: A rumor circulated that Sen. Harris would endorse Biden, perhaps a trail balloon for a Biden-Harris presidential picket.
  • As the days dwindled down to a precious few (yes, it’s from a famous song) before the caucuses, the rhetoric among some candidates grew hotter in cold Iowa: Buttigieg attacked both Biden and Sanders; Biden said Sanders is not a Democrat.
  • A rift between Sens. Warren and Sanders, the two most liberal candidates (although, to be sure, all the candidates are on the liberal side of the political spectrum, even though the cable TV pundits try to convince viewers that their views are continents apart) was certain to happen sometime prior to the end of the primary season, because both Sens. Warren and Sanders appeal to the same segment of Democratic voters, and only one can get the presidential nomination. (Important Lesson To Remember About PR Agency Life: The split between the two senators has relevance to our business: As I’ve often said, even your best friend at an agency will cease being your best friend when you are both after the same promotion.)
  • The spat between Sens. Warren and Sanders might also have influenced the outcome of the Iowa caucuses, in which candidates had to receive at least 15% in the first round in order to advance. (No one knows for sure.)

The circular firing squad attacks on each other by the candidates prior to the Iowa caucuses remind me of a broken loop recording – except for the remarks of Michael Bloomberg, who skipped the caucuses. The former New York City mayor, in an Aventura, Fla. speech on January 26, took on a subject that other candidates hardly mentioned – the growth of anti-Semitic attacks. While all the other candidates have condemned anti-Semitism, they have not publicly announced specific plans detailing what they would do to halt it, said a spokesperson of the Anti-Defamation League, in a New York Times article.

But did the results of the Iowa caucuses change the dynamics of debate # 8. Maybe. One thing we know from history is that winning the caucuses guarantees nothing.  (The self-centered media, of course, made a really big deal, as usual, about the outcome of the Iowa caucuses, and will also follow suit regarding the New Hampshire primary on February 11,as if voters in the remainder of the country care only about those outcomes. Data on desmoinesregister.com showed that “Since 1972, the top voter-getter in the Democratic caucuses has gone on to win the nomination in seven of 10 contested races, but just Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008 won the presidency. Among Republicans since 1980, the winner of the Iowa caucuses has gained the nomination in three of eight contested races, but the presidency just once: George W. Bush in 2000.)” In my estimation, the constant winner is the Iowa economy.)

The major news from Iowa was that the mess-up with the caucuses’ reporting certainly showed that electronic voting systems need a paper back-up. Because of the problems, it also provided conspiracy theorists reasons to say the results were rigged against certain candidates and/or that the difficulty was caused by foreign hackers. A New York Times analysis article of the voting, on February 6, said, “Vote counts are riddled with inconsistencies, though there is no evidence that the mistakes were intentional.” But most important, in my opinion, it assured that if the November election goes against President Trump he is sure to agitate his backers by claiming that the election was rigged, as he did until he said it wasn’t rigged in 2016, after he was elected.

It took several days for the candidates to know the final results of the caucuses, but even if everything went smoothly caucuses have outlived their usefulness decades ago. The caucuses should have gone the way of the horse and buggy. Unlike a primary, where people can vote throughout the day, the caucuses limit participation to only voters who can show up at certain times and stay for hours, providing results that might not stand up if thousands more voters cast ballots in a primary. Caucuses might be quaint, but they are undemocratic – with a small d – because they give a small number of caucus-goers such a significant voice in a 2020 election.

In my opinion, there was no big winner in the caucuses (but it’s better to be a winner than a loser) because it’s too early in the primary season. The outcome of the primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday (March 3) will determine which candidates have staying power. However, there was a big loser – Joe Biden, who needs to rethink his messaging of, “I’m the only candidate who can defeat Trump and President Obama trusted me,” didn’t catch on. Instead of attacking Sens. Warren and Sanders’ health plans and playing up his past experience, perhaps he should start telling voters, in detail, his plans for the future, because as the Iowa results showed, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” (Re: Biden’s disappointing finish in Iowa: My first PR job was with a political firm, where I worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. I learned an important lesson there: One thing is certain. In politics nothing is certain.) Personally, I think it’s time for the perpetual presidential candidates to become “elder wise men” and step aside for newcomers with extensive national or international experience – but not for a mayor of a small town like South Bend, whose population is a little more than 100,000 people.

Before the candidates waved goodbye to Iowa, the friendly state, a major occurrence that could directly affect all the candidates happened. Once again, the Democratic National Committee revised the requirement for candidates’ participation in debates, making it easier for Bloomberg to gain a place on the stage for the February 19 Las Vegas, Nevada contest, causing other candidates to cry “foul.”

Nevertheless, in the days leading up to the New Hampshire debate, on February 7, the former New York City Mayor began receiving endorsements: On February 5, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo became the first governor to back Bloomberg; the next day Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) declared for him, but the big news came hours prior to the debate, when former U.S. Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer endorsed Bloomberg. What makes this significant is that Spencer is the first high-level former Trump cabinet appointee to publicly criticize the president and back an opponent.

What did debate #8 reveal?

  • That the candidates still can’t aim straight. It’s been nine months since the first Democratic debate and the candidates are still attacking each other instead of President Trump. (The only candidate who has not attacked the other Democrats and limited his criticism to Trump is Bloomberg, and he hasn’t been on a debate stage.)
  • The current method of selecting a candidate doesn’t work. It should be scrapped. Not because of the Iowa mess (which will be a footnote in political history, nothing more), but because the existing method allows for too many candidates, instead of a few who have earned the right to vie for the nomination because of their past experience. (Too many candidates can lead to a situation like the one that led to the nomination of Trump. The adage that any boy or girl can grow up to be president might be true, but having any boy or girl become president is a disaster. It can result in an ego-centric, habitual-lying, vindictive, dictatorial-like, know-nothing president like Trump, who only cares about himself. During my political PR days, people were screened before they were considered for high office. The leaders of both parties made certain that those who received backing for prominent political positions had the necessary qualifications to handle the job. History proves that those “smoke-filled” room decisions didn’t provide candidates that deliberately divided the country. Now the important screening of candidates is by the television set.)
  • The debates are getting monotonous. (So are the reporters’ questions. They remind me of the post-game interviews with managers and ball players, when the answers are known before the questions are asked.) Much of what the candidates say is old hat by now. New voices are needed.

Of course, the circular fire squad was evident through out the debate. Instead of reporting who said what about whom, which was a re-run of past statements, below is how I feel the candidates did:

  • There was no clear winner. I thought Sens. Klobuchar and Sanders, along with former veep Biden and businessmen Tom Steyer all did well. However, Biden was the most improved.
  • Sens. Klobuchar has the best closing statement.
  • Extra credit for Sanders and Steyer for being the first to turn their fire on President Trump. Sanders, early on, said, we re all united against Trump, and Steyer continually attacked the president throughout the debate, as he has in all the debates and reminded everyone he has been calling for Trump’s impeachment for much more than a year.
  • Toward the end of the debate, Bloomberg was attacked for “trying to buy the election” and not for campaigning as long as the original candidates. (That doesn’t bother me. Campaigning forever doesn’t mean a candidate is more deserving than another who enters the race late. Maybe it means the former NYC mayor had a better strategy. The nomination should go to the person who has the best chance to defeat Trump, not who has campaigned the longest or has the least money.)
  • Both Mayor Pete, who was attacked for his inexperience, and Sen. Sanders, who was attacked for his democratic socialist positions, did well in responding to the assaults.

    My Take:

    If Sen. Sanders overwhelmingly wins the New Hampshire primary on February 11, the less liberal candidates will band together to try and stop his momentum. If the New Hampshire results are close, it’ll be every man and woman for themselves until after Super Tuesday on March 3. Then the field will be winnowed to a few, all less liberal than Sanders, but all definitely on the liberal side of the political spectrum and all exceedingly more liberal than President Trump. If after Super Tuesday, Mayor Pete is still a viable candidate, the other remaining ones will form a “Stop Pete” strategy, not because they are necessarily against his positions, but because a mayor of a  small city with a little over a 100,000 citizen does not have the national governmental experience to be president of the United States. (They can point to Trump as an example.) If this scenario plays out, it’ll open the door to some other Democratic senators or governors to declare their candidacy, and also strengthen the candidacies of Sens. Klobuchar and Warren, and, maybe, Bloomberg.

    As the days dwindle down to a precious few before the Democratic presidential team is decided, too often the candidates continue to provide ammunition by attacking each other that will be used against them during the presidential campaign.

    Every time a Democrat attacks a Democrat their comments can be included in a pro Trump election ad. But they don’t seem to care. And that’s a major mistake.

    Both the president and the Democrats are playing it wrong:

    • The Democrats should acknowledge an uptick in the economy – the president at the time always gets the credit or blame, whether it’s deserved or not – and they should admit that it’s good. (On February 7, another strong economic report came out.) What the Democrats should say is, “Now that we have a good economy, here’s what we can do to make it better for everyone.” Instead they refuse to admit the reality because the party is afraid of the negative reaction from its fringe elements, which have held them captives for years.
    • What Trump is doing is even more destructive to himself, than what the Democrats are doing to themselves. Because of his vindictive nature, instead of saying, “The impeachment is over. I was exonerated. Now let’s get together and do what’s right for America,” he’s on an, “I’ll get them for opposing me revenge,” kick. Maybe he forgot that it was his mean-spirited, malevolent behavior and rants that had his approval ratings sink under water for most of his tenure. His approval ratings are up now, but that is probably a temporary bounce that will deflate in a little while, because temporary bounces don’t last.

    In the 1970s, another president, Richard Nixon, also had an enemy’s list. As he was leaving the White House, after being told he would be impeached, he said, “Always remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win, unless you hate them…and then, you destroy yourself.” Obviously Donald Trump doesn’t believe that.”

    The Democrats conduct towards each other since the previous debate was despicable. President Trump’s was worse. His conduct of lying continued during his State of The Union speech and after. So did his schoolyard-like belittling of his opponents.

    Since there is no tie in American politics, I put this debate in the Democratic column. The debate score now is Trump 4, Democrats 4, and because of the president’s behavior the Democrats seem to be gaining momentum, when the opposite should be true.


    The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com and artsolomon4pr (at) optimum.net.

     

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