Democratic Debates Round-Up (And A Very Important PR Lesson From The Political Scene)

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Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

So now that Super Tuesday 2020 is history, how did the candidates’ performance in the Democratic Debate Debacles (DDD) affect their vote?

The truth (except you’ll never hear it on cable TV) is “Who knows?” There are many factors in a voter’s decision. Pundits who claim they know really don’t know, as their history of being wrong about election outcomes show.

In 2016, these know-it-alls knew that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. In 2019 and 2020, the same crowd knew that Joe Biden would be the run-a-way favorite to win the Democratic nomination for president. They were wrong on both accounts.

One thing we know for certain: The TV know-it-alls will have all the answers about why Joe Biden did well on Super Tuesday and why Bernie Sanders, Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren didn’t. But only after the results are in.

If you believe that the 10 debates affected the vote, your opinion is as valid as those on TV who make their living predicating, making excuses, and second-guessing.

I’m not sure if the TV debates helped or hurt a candidate. But I do have an opinion on how the candidates performed during the first 10 debates.

Here’s my opinion. (In the alphabetical order after the South Carolina Debate.):

(Important Note: The analysis of the candidates below was written prior to the South Carolina primary vote on February 29, and was not changed as a result of the vote. If it proves me right, I accept full credit; if wrong, blame someone else.)

  • Joe Biden: After a sluggish beginning, his last two debates were on-target and should help him with African-American voters. (If only he would stop talking about his family.)*
  • Mike Bloomberg: I thought his much improved South Carolina debate keeps him viable until Super Tuesday and after. His smartness was on display during the South Carolina debate by scheduling two ads during it. Because he is not a great debater, the ads augmented his on-stage performance.
  • Pete Buttigieg: I don’t think he was helped by his debate performances. He sounds too strident (like a moderate Bernie Sanders, without the Vermont senator’s following.) He makes my basic training sergeants seem soft-spoken.
  • Amy Klobuchar: Her calm demeanor, never screaming, always sticking to her talking points, helps her gain national recognition as a person to watch in the future. Not well-enough known to win the nomination, but definitely a veep candidate or a Senate leadership position. (If only she would stop talking about her upbringing during her closing remarks) *
  • Bernie Sanders: It’s not difficult to see why he has such a loyal following; he means what he says, been saying it for many years and lets attacks against him roll off his shoulders, like lies emanating from Donald Trump’s mouth. But will his positive remarks about Fidel Castro hurt him with moderate and conservative Democratic voters? Will those remarks be his Waterloo? I don’t know, but I bet your friendly TV political pundit has a definitive answer (subject to excuses of course, if proven wrong).
  • Tom Steyer: Obviously s good debater. In fact, during the first eight debates I thought he was always among the top three, often among the top two. But he changed his talking points in the last two debates, to his determent, in my opinion. Out of the running for 2020, (although he never had a chance from the beginning. Not well enough known nationally). Should run for           another office before trying the presidential lane again. Many Democratic voters agree with his wants.
  • Elizabeth Warren: My original choice for the nomination (for many months). But she lost me because as her hope of gaining the nomination was fading she transformed into a shrill, interrupting individual, not letting others finish their remarks. Especially distasteful to me was her vicious attacks on former NYC Mayor Bloomberg, who has done more to help Democratic office holders get elected than all of the other candidates rolled into one. If only she would stop talking about her early struggles)*

*There is no such thing as the Sympathy Party.

After watching 10 weeks of circular firing attacks, I thought that Sen. Sanders would have to be in a protective booth during the South Carolina debate. While he was attacked by all the others, (the hardest by Bloomberg and Buttigieg), in general his in-coming were more duds than explosives.”

In the aggregate, I thought that the debates did nothing to help the Democrats in the 2020 election. What it accomplished was the damaging of other Democratic candidates. Too many circular firing squads; too few attacks on Donald Trump, except by Steyer during the debates and Bloomberg’s TV commercials. While Bloomberg also attacked Trump, his appearances in only two debates paled besides Steyer’s consistent ones. But the former NYC mayor’s TV commercials were the best political ads I saw since LBJ’s famous “Daisy Girl”one against Barry Goldwater in 1964. They all hit the target.

Democratic Debate Column #10: Biden’s Last Stand? was the title of my last column. So how did the former veep do in South Carolina?

He did very well, winning the primary with margins that left the other candidates far behind, causing Tom Steyer and Mayor Pete to drop out.

Nevertheless, the pundits, both on TV and in print pubs, said that polling shows that Sen. Sanders has a large lead in the delegate-rich state of California, which might make it difficult for any other candidate to catch up with him.

Did anything happen after the South Carolina debate and before the Super Tuesday voting on March 3? Yes, some were the same old, same old. However, there were also significant new occurrences.

  • March 1 was probably President Trump’s worst day since he last stepped on a scale: Tom Steyer and Pete Buttigieg suspended their campaigns, meaning that the vote on Super Tuesday would be less splintered among the remaining moderate liberal candidates.
  • March 2 was just as bad a day for Sen. Sanders. Sen. Klobuchar suspended her campaign and endorsed Biden, followed a few hours later by Buttigieg, meaning that the “stop Bernie” movement was now a reality. Sen. Tim Kaine and former Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid also endorsed Biden, as did Terry McCAuliffe, a former Democratic Party chairman and Virginia governor.
  • The Bloomberg ad planners were quick to jump on the day’s headlines. Immediately after Sen. Warren’s assaults on the former NYC mayor regarding treatment of women at his firm, ads appeared featuring women employees at Bloomberg’s business commending the treatment of women there. And after President Trump’s presser regarding the coronavirus, ads attacking the president’s handling of the situation, and how the former NYC mayor would handle the situation, appeared. The ads are similar to the workings of a newspaper – highlighting the day’s important news on page one.
  • Bloomberg also released detailed information about his heart health and asked Sen. Sanders to do the same.
  • Former veep Biden corrected his statement about his being arrested in South Africa, when visiting Nelson Mandela, saying instead that he had been detained.

Here’s my evaluation and thoughts of the candidates after the results of the South Carolina and Super Tuesday primaries were counted.

  • Joe Biden: The former veep said that he considers himself a liberal, but a look at his record suggests he’s a liberal – moderate, more liberal than most members of the Senate, but less than Sens. Sanders and Warren. If Biden becomes the candidate, he might have a tough time convincing Sanders voters to back him, instead of staying at home as they did in 2016 when Hillary Clinton was the nominee. While Biden had a generally liberal voting record as a senator he’ll have to defend his vote for the Iraq war and his sorry performance when, as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he presided over the confirmation hearings in which Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court hearings in 1991.Nevertheless, his Super Tuesday performance was terrific and Bloomberg endorsing Biden the following day is certain to gain him additional support.
  • Mike Bloomberg: Even before he suspended his campaign after a poor showing on Super Tuesday, the former NYC mayor has already done damage to President Trump. His support of Democrats running in the 2018 election helped Democrats win control of the House, which resulted in Trump being impeached. And his ads obviously have irked the president, who keeps on attacking Bloomberg. The Bloomberg candidacy shows that in order to run for a national office, a candidate should not run a truncated campaign. But even though he is no longer a candidate Bloomberg can still do considerable damage to Trump’s reelection efforts by continuing to do what he did in 2018 and during his 2020 campaign.
  • Pete Buttigieg: Unlike some of the other candidates he’s young enough to make his name better known nationally if he wants to try again in four years. But he has to remain in the public spotlight, best done by running for a Congressional seat, difficult to win in Indiana, accepting a post in a Democratic administration if they win or speaking out on national issues during the next four years. (But his dropping out speech sounded more like a traditional campaign speech, unlike Steyer’s, who told it like it is.) I was anti Mayor Pete from the beginning because of three concerns: I don’t think that being mayor of a small town prepares anyone for the presidency, I think his speaking style exposes a grandiose personality and he talks in platitudes with little specifics.
  • Amy Klobuchar: By dropping out of contention prior to the Super Tuesday vote and endorsing Biden, the Minnesota Senator positioned herself for a high-level post in a Biden administration, if he wins, or for a future Senate leadership position. Both would keep her in the national spotlight for a future presidential try.
  • Bernie Sanders: The Super Tuesday results showed that the senator’s support is a mile long and an inch deep. In order to have a chance to win the Democratic presidential nomination he has to attract more than his fanatical supporters. That would mean moderating his policies, which could turn off some of his current base. No matter what Sanders does, I don’t think he can attract liberal-moderate voters. And I don’t think he will be nominated at the convention.
  • Tom Steyer: Obviously s good debater. In fact, during the first eight debates I thought he was always among the top two or three. Even though he suspended his campaign after failing to reach his goal in the South Carolina primary, much of his programs have appeal to Democratic voters, but he’s not well-enough known. But unlike some of the other candidates he’s young enough to make his name better known nationally if he wants to try again in four years. But he has to remain in the public spotlight, best done by running for a lesser office than the presidency, accepting a post in a Democratic administration if they win or speaking out on national issues during the next four years.
  • Elizabeth Warren: My original choice for the nomination (for many months). But as the campaign continued, she reminded me of a female Bernie Sanders, sounding like she’s the only person who knows what’s right for the country. She positioned herself as the alternative to the ultra-liberal Sen. Sanders, and suggested the other candidates were not liberal. While some people think that her debate performances of interrupting other candidates before they concluded their responses to questions and her vicious attacks on Bloomberg, who has done more to help liberal and Democratic office holders than all of the other  candidates rolled into one helped invigorate her campaign, I think it damaged her chances for the presidential nomination,    even if there is a brokered convention.

What About The Future:

Barrowing the orbuculum used by cable TV political pundits, here are my predictions regarding future happenings of the primary campaign:

  • Now that Joe Biden is back in the running for the nomination, the Republicans will launch continuous attacks on him and his son regarding Hunter Biden’s serving on the board of Burisma Holdings, the major Ukrainian natural gas company.
  • If Biden is the Democratic presidential candidate, he’ll choose Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate.
  • The cable pundits, who have been predicting that “Sen. Sanders cannot be stopped from gaining the nomination after his victories on Super Tuesday,” will not admit that they were wrong.

My Take

No matter who the Democratic candidate is, the person cannot completely ignore Sen. Sanders’ campaign messages. Together with Sen. Warren’s ideas they make up a large portion of what the Democratic base believes. The Democratic platform must embrace some of their ideas, and the candidate must include some of them while campaigning during the lead-up to the election. (While I am not a socialist and disagree with Sen. Sanders’ remarks about U.S. foreign policy, I do believe a large portion of his economic message about conditions in the U.S. is correct and should be addressed.)

The South Carolina debate on CBS was the worst one yet. The candidates acted like a grade school class does when the teacher leaves the room, except this time playing the role of the teachers were CBS moderators, who, to be polite, were less than proficient at their roles. The candidates were unruly throughout the debate. I’ll give the moderators a pass on that; it’s difficult to get people to behave when they don’t want to, especially ones with over-sized egos. But the questioning was horrible. The talent had a list of prepared questions and followed the script even when good journalism demanded it be revised because more important news happened shortly prior to the telecast. (Makes me think that they need a script as a security blanket and they can’t change courses unless someone thinks for them.) With the coronavirus outbreak expanding, one would think that subject would be the lead question, or Sen. Sanders’ remarks about Cuba and American foreign policy of overthrowing governments in Latin America. Instead most of the telecast was devoted to the same old questions that have been asked in the previous debates and during interviews with the candidates between the debates. CBS did the impossible: By comparison, it made the cable TV political programs look respectable – at least for two hours.

The way the cableists were going Ga Ga during the lead-up to the South Carolina debate and primary, you’d think the winner would automatically ascend to the presidency.

Re Rep. Jim Clyburn joining Rep. John Lewis and endorsing Joe Biden, which got the TV pundits excited, as if they were covering a truly important presidential changing story. Let’s put things in perspective: The endorsements were only important in conjunction with the South Carolina primary and, a big maybe, in a few other states with a large percentage of black voters. But most of those states are in the GOP dominated South. The endorsements have no legs regarding the presidential election, or even in South Carolina general elections. The Palmetto State is solidly Republican and has two GOP senators. (Closest Thing To A Sure Bet: No matter which Democrat won the South Carolina primary, the state will still vote Republican in November.)

After months of tying himself to President Obama, the former president acknowledged that there was a candidate named Biden, but in an indirect way. A New York Times story said, lawyers sent a cease-and desist letter to a Trump super PAC demanding that they stop a misleading ad accusing Biden of betraying blacks

Just Asking: Wouldn’t an infectious disease expert be the better individual to lead and coordinate the coronavirus task force instead of a vice-president who sucks up to President Trump? Answer: Not if Trump was thinking of dumping Pence as his running mate again if things get worse.

If I was advising the Democrats, I’d tell them to begin talking about how President Trump has decimated the public health agencies and appointed a bunch of politicians to lead the coronavirus problem.

With so many candidates being permitted to run for the presidency, it permits a minority-favorite candidate to win the nomination even though the remaining candidates in the aggregate get more votes. Ridiculous! There has to be a better method of eliminating the lesser supported candidates early in the primary season.

(If the Presidential election were held today, my car bumper sticker slogan would be, “Who would you rather have as president? A democratic socialist or a totalitarian fascist?”)

You can bet the farm on the following: If Sen. Sanders does win the nomination it will not be the first time that a Democratic president or nominee has been called a socialist (or worse). Actually the Republicans and conservative Democrats have been using “socialist” as a scare word since the 1930s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was accused of being a socialist because of his progressive programs. In1952, former President Harry S. Truman said the following in a campaign speech, “Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations .Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.” Truman also said when the Republicans called the Democrats socialists what they mean is “…down with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal,” and “down with Harry Truman’s Fair Deal.” And one thing is certain: No matter who is the Democratic nominee for president in 2020, that person will be attacked as a socialist, as were former presidents Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom Sen. Barry Goldwater considered socialists.

But labeling programs by a Republican president as socialist seems to be forbidden.

Example:

President Nixon enacted or recommended economic legislation that if proposed by a Democratic president would have been attacked as socialist. An article on the website of The Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, included the following,”

“Probably more new regulation was imposed on the economy,” wrote Herb Stein, the chairman of Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers, “than in any other presidency since the New Deal.” Nixon in 1970 signed into law a bill to create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); concern about the environment led him to propose an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and to sign amendments to the 1967 Clean Air Act calling for reductions in automobile emissions and the national testing of air quality. Other significant environmental legislation enacted during Nixon’s presidency included the 1972 Noise Control Act, the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.

He also proposed a massive overhaul of federal welfare programs. The centerpiece of Nixon’s welfare reform was the replacement of much of the welfare system with a negative income tax the purpose of the negative income tax was to provide both a safety net for the poor and a financial incentive for welfare recipients to work. He also proposed an expansion of the Food Stamp program. A part of his welfare reform proposal became a lasting part of the system: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) provides a guaranteed income for elderly and disabled citizens. The Nixon years also brought large increases in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits, according to a Miller Center article.

Of course today, Nixon might be called a traitor to the Republican Party by President Trump or a socialist or even worse in Trump’s opinion, a disloyal person.

The Very Important PR Lesson From The Political Scene: Be realistic when preparing a budget for a program. An inadequate budget will make it impossible to accomplish the program’s goals. But an enormous budget will not guarantee that a program will be successful. If you don’t believe me, just ask the candidates who were completing for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Hey, Political junkies don’t despair. The Democratic National Committee announced that there would be 12 debates, so there are still two more to look forward to. The next will be in Arizona on March 15; the site of the last has not yet been announced. Will these debates have any more affect on the outcome of the November presidential election? Probably not. As in the previous 10 debates, the candidates were seeking the support of voters who probably were going to vote against President Trump regardless of who the Democratic candidate is.


About 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 or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.