The next Democratic debate is set for Thursday. The top ten Democratic presidential candidates will face off against each other on the same stage for the first time all on just one night.
The candidates will have one minute and 15 seconds for direct responses to questions and 45 seconds for responses and rebuttals. Although they will be able to deliver opening statements, there will be no closing remarks.
I think at this stage of the game, most of us know what to expect but what should the various Democratic candidates do? As a Democratic strategist here’s some advice I want to share:
I mean be prepared to answer the questions specifically. You can’t wing it. And I don’t mean with pre-packaged zingers.
In June, during the first debate in Miami, California Sen. Kamala Harris said: "Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we're going to put food on their table.
Her comment led to lots of applause, but it was as contrived as it was pre-planned. Her campaign even sold T-shirts afterward, already prepared, with that exact quote on them.
America doesn’t want to witness a food fight, so don’t give them one.
Harris saw a brief bump in her polls numbers after that night and more money flowed in to her campaign treasure chest, but it was short-lived.
Don’t attack other Dems
Harris was right, America doesn’t want to witness a food fight, so don’t give them one. Democrats don’t want to see Democrats attacking each other.
Harris, the first-term California senator, learned that the hard way when she attacked former Vice President Joe Biden on his bussing policies from years back and practically painted him out to be a racist.
She appeared strong and again, what did she get? A small, temporary blip in the polls and in cash.
Now I’m not saying that the Democrats at the debate on Thursday night need to have a kumbaya fest -- like the one we’ve been witnessing with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. I am saying, however, that you can attack the other candidates’ policies and not make it personal.
Remember in 2016 when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were all smiles and hugs? That didn’t last long. But when the vitriol started to flow, the party started to form deep alliances and also deep divisions. And then… Democrats lost the election.
Show voters how you differ from the other candidates
Many of the Democratic presidential candidates agree on issues surrounding climate change, health care, immigration, etc. But it’s learning about how they differ that is essential for voters. That’s the kind of information they will need to decide who they want to represent their party.
For example, Sanders and Warren agree about many things, but he’s a socialist, she’s a capitalist. They both need to put that forth and explain why they chose those labels. They need to highlight those differences.
I would counsel each candidate this way: Be specific with your own plans (and guess what --that’s worked quite well for Warren), tout your own successes and focus not only on what you would do differently than your fellow Democrats but explain how.
Remember who the REAL opponent is
Although it will be tempting for all of the candidates to attack Biden because he’s the front runner, and it will be even more tempting for Senators Sanders and Warren, who will sandwich Biden onstage in this next debate.
The Democratic candidates need to remember that President Donald Trump is their true opponent and the voters know it.
Recent polling shows that the majority of Democratic voters want a candidate who can beat Trump more than a candidate who shares their values.
So Democratic voters want to make Trump a one-term president and these candidates have the opportunity to show their base that they’re the one who can truly take down Trump.
So I would recommend the contenders give the audience a sample of what they’re in for. Biden, for example, given all his recent gaffes, could gain the most from this.
Those gaffes have cost him support according to the polls. Although he’s still leading the pack, those gaffes have some would-be voters questioning his age, strength, clarity on issues and his ability to recall them accurately.
Some supporters wonder how can Biden go head to head on a debate stage with Trump and still win? Biden’s got to show voters some of that spunk. So he (and the rest of the candidates) need to attack Trump. And they need to do it not just personally but on his policies (or lack thereof).
Put forth the facts
The candidates need to show would-be voters how Trump has divided our country. They need to mention how he embarrasses us regularly on the international stage.
Democrats should strike hard on issues such as immigration. They need to talk about how the president wants to divert funds from the military to the border, even though immigration levels have been dropping steadily for months.
They need to call him out for wanting to meet with the Taliban -- even though we don’t negotiate with terrorists.
They need to point to the terror group that just took credit for a bombing in Afghanistan and have even threatened American lives since Trump called the meeting off.
All of those issues speak to instability in decision making. They reveal a president who cares about his own agenda rather than the American people’s.
Since “it’s the economy, stupid” (still!) drive home the point about how the Trump tax breaks were for the rich and feed into income inequality. This is an issue that is popular among Democrats and did well for Democrats in the midterms.
Also, the candidates need to talk about how top economists not only are predicting an economic slowdown, they fear we might be headed for another recession.
They should also speak about climate change; about the Obama policies that Trump has reversed and how he thinks’ that climate change is a hoax.
If you believe in something, stand firm and, if you do not, be honest and genuine.
And, finally, they need to talk about health care. What has ObamaCare done? What have Trump and the Republican Party done? And what are they trying to do by repealing and replacing it? And don’t forget to mention what taking away the Medicaid expansion in some states has done for lower-income people, especially in rural areas.
Call out the crazy
Whether it’s about arranging for a meet with the Taliban or using a Sharpie to try to prove you were right about a hurricane, Democrats need to call out the crazy things Trump has done. But even more, the candidates need to highlight why the president’s behavior is dangerous. For example, how dangerous was it for people in Alabama to brace for a storm that was not coming their way, and what about the people who were truly in the path of the storm in the opposite direction!?
Use your common sense
The first piece of advice I gave to all of the candidates at the beginning of this column was to be prepared. It’s common sense that if you’re leading the pack in the polls, you’re going to be attacked from all sides. Be ready for this and be ready to respond to it.
Former Vice President Joe Biden better be prepared to defend any and all gaffes to nearly everyone on stage, but especially to the man and woman on his right and left: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
And speaking of attacks, Warren should be prepared as well. If it was Harris’s turn to be in the hot seat at the last debate, at this next debate it will be Warren’s turn, especially after her surge in the polls this summer.
Beto O’Rourke & Julian Castro will certainly be targets for each other as both will be fighting to be the Texas favorite.
Stand up for what you believe
When Sanders talked about a $15 minimum wage or Medicare for all in 2016, it was radical; now essentially part of the Democratic Party’s platform.
Sanders was passionate about it, he really believed it. He didn’t care who it upset or offended. He wasn’t concerned about losing votes over it, and that’s why he gained votes from it.
Look at Julian Castro. After talking about decriminalizing border crossings, his name was searched in Google more times than in the entire history of his career. People might not have liked what he said but people certainly knew who he was.
Don’t be a lemming
If you believe in something, stand firm and, if you do not, be honest and genuine.
Don’t be afraid to hold a more moderate position
Don’t be afraid the far-left will drown you out or vote you out. The majority of Democratic voters are moderates and centrists. Always keep this in mind: the primary is the appetizer, the general election is the main course.
The Democratic presidential candidates need to do their homework, be prepared to defend themselves, their remarks and decisions they’ve made throughout their careers on Thursday night. They need to show how much they differ from their counterparts and demonstrate why they would be the best candidate to take down Trump.
If they follow my advice, they might get a bump in the polls, a few more checks and who knows, maybe even wind up winning the nomination.