Democratic Debates: Keeping Score

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

The fourth Democratic presidential nominees’ debate is history. And now TV entertainers, known as political pundits, will have several weeks to opine whether it changed anything before the next made for TV show in the series is aired next month. Unlike the pundits whose similar, and stale commentary is akin to a loop recording, I’ll limit my opinion (Thank God, you might say) to this column.

But first a recap. 

The score after the first three Democratic presidential debates were, in my opinion, Trump 3, Democrats 0. 

The reasons for the Trump victories? 1) The Democrats are practicing “segmented politics,” instead of agreeing on issues that will unite all Americans. 2) No Democratic candidate has yet produced the excitement to their base that Trump has to his. 3) Trump keeps his messages simple: “Build the wall,” “keeping my campaign promises,” (even though he hasn’t).4) Even though the Democratic candidates probably agree on 99% of the issues, the way they campaign is more like the other candidates are the enemy instead of Trump and the TV pundits exaggerate the differences in order to keep viewers tuned in. 5) GOP surrogates on cable TV back Trump. Democratic surrogates practice parricide and try to kill candidates that they don’t support.6) Democratic attacks on Trump concentrate on his policies. What they haven’t done is attack Trump, the person. They should, in my opinion.

Trump has his “Make America Great Again” slogan. Seemingly, the Democratic candidates, instead of coalescing around a plan to defeat Trump, are campaigning with a slogan that says, “How could you even think of voting for anyone but me?”

Importantly, past debates revealed that no Democratic candidate has caught the imagination of American voters as JFK and Barack Obama did:

Instead what came out of the past debates thus far were:

  • The wannabee presidential hopefuls were like the gang that couldn’t shot straight. Instead of attacking Trump they assaulted their own.
  • Instead of crafting messages that applied to most Americans the candidates campaigned as if people of color, and illegal immigrants were the most important problems in the United States.
  • The closest thing so far to an “OMG, I have to vote for him,” moment was when Beto O’Rourke said, “Hell yes we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” (Gun lobby proponents jumped on that remark, showing they’re fearful of future legislation.)
  • As Hillary Clinton did in the 2016 campaign, candidates are ignoring the needs and concerns of large segments of the population in their messaging. (Suggestion: They should hire some of the GOP strategists that helped Trump in 2016.)

But did the just concluded debate change the score at the top of the column? Yes it did. My new score is Trump 4, Democrats 0.

Here’s why I feel that way.

All the candidates did what they should have done in all the previous debates, with sharp attacks on Trump. Tom Steyer, who has been running ads for more than a year saying the president should be impeached and was making his first debate appearance, called Trump “that criminal in the White House.”

But then the circular firing squad again formed:

  • The piñata target of the night was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was attacked by Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobucher, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris.
  • Buttigieg attacked Tulsi Gabbard and O’Rourke.
  • Biden attacked Sanders.
  • Sanders attacked Biden. and so on and so forth.

The most intelligent remark of the night came from Sen. Cory Booker, when he opined that Democrats attacking each other played into Trump’s hand.

Because of the candidates attacking each other the winner of the debate in my opinion was again Trump.

But as usual, the format of the debate – 12 candidates with only a few minute each speaking time – made it impossible for someone to fully express their opinion on a subject, as Biden said. As usual, the result was sound bite debating.

If anything positive happened to any of the debaters since the commencing of the made-for-TV shows, it was not because of their on stage performances. It was because of the doings and sayings and generally inept performance of President Trump.

(In the last week or so, Biden started to aggressively attack the egotistical, dictatorial-inclined, foul mouthed Trump, who thinks using gutter language makes him appear tough, when in reality it makes him look like a lowlife thug. The former vice president kept up the attack during the debate. The question is was it too little to late to stop other candidates from closing the money and polling gap? I’ll let the TV pundits answer that, because, as we all know, they know everything. Right?)

Prior to joining Burson-Marsteller, my first job in public relations was with a political PR firm, where I worked on local, state and national campaigns, including presidential ones.

During that time I heard a lot of bromides from candidates and old timers, most of which could have been recorded and sold as insomnia cure remedies.

But there was one bit of advice that made sense then and that still does, even though it dates back to the 1960s. It was known as the Eleventh Commandment and was a phrase used by President Ronald Reagan during his campaign for governor of California, I was told. The Commandment is: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Democrats should learn from it and stop attacking each other.

Democrats should also learn from the 2016 campaign. Clinton ignored her “sure thing states;” Trump didn’t and won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by narrow margins, giving him the presidency. Now Trump is eying another “sure thing” Democratic state – New Mexico, and has eyes on New Hampshire, Nevada and Minnesota. Conversely, for decades, Democrats have conceded most Southern states to the GOP, not wanting to waste time or money on “sure thing” Republican states. A big mistake. Because doing so eroded the framework of a Democratic opposition, raising the question, “Are Republican strategists smarter than Democratic ones?” My opinion: You betcha

Thus far what has come out of the debates is that Democrats have mixed messages and that their enemies are the other candidates on the platform. (They continue to attack each other on and off the debate stage, during and in between debates.) Instead of crafting a unifying message to defeat Trump, what the candidates have provided resembles a poorly prepared bouillabaisse that causes heart burn, which, unless corrected, will again result in another Trump victory dinner.

Democrats should talk about Trump as they do about their rival candidates. No more Mr. or Ms. Nice. No more “when they go low, we go high.” In order to level the playing field against Trump they have to temporarily sink to his level. They can wash off the scum and muck emanating from Trump’s mouth and his surrogates after the election.

Years ago, a famous sports writer, Grantland Rice wrote, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Democrats should reject that advice. Instead they should adopt another sports quote, “Nice guys finish last,” which some people credit to Leo Durocher or “Winning Isn’t Everything; it’s the Only Thing,” attributed to several sportsmen. And the feuding Democratic candidates should heed what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “Good guys don’t always win, especially when they are divided and less determined than their adversaries…” (Note to Standing on Principal Voters: Winning is better than losing. If you don’t believe me ask the losers.)

Of course, if Trump is again “the chosen one,” a major reason, in addition to the Democrats disarray, will be the cable TV political coverage. Despite their hand-wringing over the way they covered Trump during the 2016 election, the cables are doing it again – covering his no news rallies and tweets. (As I’ve said before, I believe that many hosts of cable programs who trash Trump secretly hope he is reelected. He’s good for their ratings and is more interesting than speaking about the next snow storm, heat wave or the price of soybeans.)

Debates that actually will provide information for viewers will never happen as long as the networks control the formats and supply their own talent. They are only interested in making television that will increase viewership. What’s needed is for nonpartisan organizations to control the debates and select respected political beat journalists as the inquisitors. At the minimum you would get journalists who actually know the details and can challenge stump speech answers from the candidates. At the maximum you would get answers that are based on facts, instead of candidates challenging each other over a misstatement.

But for the remainder of this political cycle, and maybe forever because of TV money, instead of calling them debates, they should be promoted as “Politics for Dummies.” Or “Cliff Notes Journalism.”

Or a cure for insomnia programming.


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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