This week’s debates will be the first time millions of Americans meet the cast of Democrats trying to take out President Donald Trump.
That’s precisely what has party brass terrified.
Story Continued Below
Interviews with nearly 20 Democratic elected officials, party chiefs, labor leaders and operatives the past week revealed an air of foreboding verging on alarm that the debates will degenerate into a two-night, bare-knuckle brawl. With the divisive 2016 Democratic primary fresh in their minds and the current presidential candidates starting to take swipes at one another, the fear is that voters will be left with the impression of a bickering, small-minded opposition party.
“I’m worried it’s going to be a scrum — a lot of people trying to score points on each other and looking like scoring points was more important than communicating with the American people,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the Democratic National Committee. “That circular firing squad is not going to help save our democracy or help working families.”
There are a few reasons Democrats think the presidential hopefuls — after pulling their punches for months — might escalate their attacks on Wednesday and Thursday. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s rivals have increasingly shown a willingness to take him on, especially over his recent remarks about working with segregationists in Congress during his time in the Senate.
Sen. Cory Booker said last week that Biden’s “relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people.” Sen. Kamala Harris was no less blunt: “I would not be a member of the United States Senate if those men that he praised had their way.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has long criticized Biden for voting for the Iraq War and free trade deals. At the same time, moderate candidates have been unloading on their progressive opponents. After Sanders defended democratic socialism in a major speech in Washington, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper bashed Sanders’ left-wing ideology.
The first debates of the primary also come as a number of candidates are barely registering in the polls and desperate for a splashy moment.
“It’s fine to draw policy distinctions. People get that. That’s what primaries are about. But negative personal attacks are something people are worried about,” said Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “Everyone is united behind the fact that we have to win and people don’t want to see anything that distracts from that.”
Of course, a free-for-all this far out from the start of voting might be long forgotten by the time elections get underway next year. Republicans had their own circus-like spectacle in the 2016 primaries, yet Trump still managed to win the White House in the end.
But the prospect of taking on a sitting president after a months-long Democratic bloodbath is still worrisome to many in the party.
Several Democrats stressed that they’re fine with the candidates debating policy, as long as it doesn’t go further than that. Said Dan Sena, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when the party flipped 40 seats in last year’s midterm elections: “In 2018, the primaries really didn’t set us back. It’s my hope that personal attacks — attacks outside of the policy realm — are outside of the conversation.”
But the distinction between personal attacks and policy disagreements are sometimes in the eye of the beholder. In the 2016 primary, many Hillary Clinton supporters thought Sanders was too aggressive and blame him for her eventual loss. Sanders’ aides strongly disagree with that view and insist he challenged her only on policy, noting that he famously said in an October 2015 debate, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
The 2016 campaign still weighs on many Democrats anxious about a slugfest in 2020. They’re apprehensive of a primary that leaves its nominee too damaged and its party too divided — and fear this week’s debates could kick off that kind of race.
“I’m worried about a repeat of 2016, just being up front with you,” said Jerry Govan Jr., chairman of South Carolina’s state legislative black caucus. “We could have won that election, but we had a percentage that stayed home because their candidate was not the nominee.”
The decade-long insurgency within the Republican Party is also top of mind for some Democrats.
“I think the entire party watches what the tea party did to the Republican Party … and wants to find a way to move politics and governance leftward, but not burn the world down as it does it,” said Scott Mulhauser, a former aide to Biden.
Some progressives see things very differently. They worry that any candidate who challenges Biden will be cast as divisive, even if it’s over policy. They view hand-wringing over any kind of disagreements in the primary as a way to stifle debate — and as an unrealistic demand in a 24-person race.
Democrats also said they’re worried that the media — rather than the candidates themselves — will encourage and exaggerate divisions.
“One thing I’m not really fond of is people sort of falling for the [notion] that this is about candidates beating each other up, rather than [an exchange of] ideas,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
Not all Democrats were downcast about the coming clash.
“I don’t think you’re going to see the kind of things you saw on the Republican stage in 2015,” said Karen Finney, a former Clinton staffer, recalling Trump’s taunts of his rivals in particular. “‘Little Marco,’ I don’t see it being like that. I expect it’ll be a far more substantive conversation.”