Democrats’ debates failed to advance their cause

It can be debated who “won” this week’s Democratic debates, but there’s no mistaking who lost: voters who are yearning for a candidate who will deliver them from the exhausting and incompetent reign of Donald Trump.

Over the two evenings, 20 Democratic candidates mostly jostled for poll positions, undercut the race’s leading candidates and engaged in tedious dissections of health care plans and the distinction between civil and criminal charges for illegally crossing the U.S. border.

President Trump, no doubt, looked on amused as the candidates attacked each other, went down rabbit holes of wonky policy issues and left him unscathed and unexposed. The luckiest president ever continues to evade accountability.

Dan Balz, the Washington Post political writer, captured both debates’ defects in his commentary on Wednesday’s debate: “By the end of the evening, the candidates had done as much to make a case against one another as against the president, without offering much in the way of an aspirational message or connecting directly with the voters they will need to win the presidential election.”

North Carolina voters, a key swing-state audience for Democrats in the 2020 election, saw two of their state’s big issues — health care insurance and climate change — get attention, but the scope of opinions across so many candidates provided little indication of what a Democratic president would actually do about Medicaid expansion and rising sea levels.

This grand exercise in democracy failed to inspire or enlighten. Who should be blamed? Here’s a short list:

The Democratic National Committee. Nearly a century after he said it, Will Rogers is still right: “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Who drew the rules that allowed 20 candidates on stage? The group is so large it’s doomed to be confusing. After the virtual coronation of Hillary Clinton in 2016, the idea was to show the openness and diversity of the party. But it also showed a party that doesn’t know who or what it wants. The debates should have been held later with a much tighter field.

CNN. The cable network offered a game-show format that encouraged contrived conflict and truncated statements. It didn’t help that many of the moderators’ questions seemed piped in from Republican Party headquarters. Candidates were questioned about open borders, free college, how to pay for Medicare for All and taking away private insurance. There wasn’t much about Russia, China trade, struggling farmers and why the president refuses to reveal his tax returns.

The media. Even the best media sources succumbed to analyses designed in phone-size bites. There were plenty of quick “takeaways on the debate” and a fixation on a question no one can really answer: Who won? Political reporters offering instant feedback as the debate unfolded usually was more about quips than insights.

The longshot candidates. Trump won the first political race he ever entered and now he’s president. That has encouraged a lot of why-not-me thinking on behalf of candidates who are quickly finding out why not. More democracy is better than less, but some of the 20 candidates have no chance of becoming the nominee. At some point, running is just self-promotion aimed at financial gain, another race or a Cabinet post. That self-promotion comes at the expense of a coherent conversation among a smaller group of candidates who could be nominated and could win.

As the race tightens, perhaps the Democratic message will focus. The Democrats shouldn’t dwell on differences — that’s Trump’s message. They should focus on how to best bring the country together and take it forward. And get to it quickly. Too much is at stake.