Debate Strategy


In advance of tomorrow night's Democratic candidates debate in Las Vegas, I have concerns. My preferred candidate, Elizabeth Warren, is getting the shaft from the media—even to the point of being omitted from head-to-head questions in a major NBC News poll today—and needs to gain some traction. Writing anyone off after just 1.5% of delegates have been allotted is absurd, and as noted before, the system that requires fundraising to be contingent on results in two tiny whitebread states is in dire need of reform. That said, Warren still has the third-most delegates and is behind a very polarizing candidate and an untested moderate that is very much a dark horse in the race. Not that you'd know it from the media stories of late.

So the senator needs to make a splash tomorrow, get the attention of the cameras and the journos as well as, of course, the voters. Here's my open letter of advice.


Dear Senator Warren,

As you know, we need to beat Trump in November. Soundly. Overwhelmingly. We need as much voter turnout as we can muster. I believe you're the best candidate in the field to accomplish that for us, and I think that should be a principal line of attack in the next couple of debates.

Don't get me wrong, I love the policy positions and I think those should be in the conversation, but some focus on the ones that relate directly with the Trump crime spree would be welcome. Bickering about health care policy isn't going to do the trick, even though yours is the best-articulated plan for that.

No, let's focus instead on your proposal for the Office of Public Integrity, a new agency to monitor and review executive branch actions for illegality. Let's focus on the law and the upholding of the law, let's give some time to the view that the heretofore accepted practice of not going after previous presidents (e.g. Ford pardoning Nixon and Obama not supporting action confronting war crimes committed by the George W. Bush administration) cannot apply in the case of Trump or anyone in the future who might try to turn our democratic republic into a tyrannical autocracy. One might go so far as to argue that pardoning Nixon set a bad precedent that helped lead us to the crisis we are in today. Let's focus on your anti-corruption proposals and bona fides, particularly in light of Trump's latest spate of pardons and commutations for financial criminals. The anti-conflict-of-interest provisions of your proposals seem pertinent in light of all this, though they have weight regardless given the plethora of Trump emoluments violations.

The top issue for all of us in this election is beating Trump. I mean, there's no more United States as we know it if we don't. But there's a divide within the anti-Trump electorate, with a disturbing number of voters who say they support Bernie Sanders but will not support anyone else; a contingent that insists on sweeping change butting heads against a contingent that fears overreaching; a media environment that is beginning to push a false Bernie-vs.-Bloomberg narrative.

You are uniquely positioned to appeal to the most voters. All respect to Mr. Sanders, among the candidates you are easily the most antithetical to Trump and Trumpism. Your policy positions are at least as appealing to those that support Mr. Sanders as his are, and you don't have the baggage of (a) the "Bernie Bro" army that offends and alienates all over social media; (b) the easy target of "socialist" that Banana Republicans will exploit against Mr. Sanders (though to be fair, they will make up scandal about any of you); or (c) the lingering bitterness from the 2016 primary cycle. None of the other candidates are likely to have as easy a time incorporating the Sanders support into a general election movement. Further, your experience and temperament are more appealing to many if not most than the youth, inexperience, and centrism of Mayor Buttegieg; the awkward speechifying, seemingly obsolete view of Republicans, and odd defensiveness of Vice-President Biden; the moderation from Senator Klobuchar; and the disturbing history of racism and moneyed bias from recent Republican Mr. Bloomberg.

Frankly, if logic were the sole basis of support, you'd be running away with this. But even with personality and emotional relativity seeming to be more important, your agenda is well-suited to such appeals and your ability to connect with people one-on-one should be a strength.

One more thing: When I worked on John Kerry's campaign in 2004, the thing that drove me up the wall more than anything else he did was speak on the campaign trail and in debate forums with the sort of language that works in the well of the Senate but can turn off people in other contexts. For example, he'd do the Senator thing of beginning sentences with "Look," and then make his point, but tonally that always sounded condescending, as if there was an unspoken "you moron" after "Look." You've done this same type of thing, and I urge you to be aware and maybe modify that kind of verbiage.

Good luck in the debates. I'm hoping for a great run of press afterward. :-)


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