After digesting the second night of the second round of Democratic presidential debates, I am left with one thought: What the hell is wrong with you, Democrats?
The public heard Democrats aggressively attacking one another, and the legacy and record of former President Obama, more often than they heard them challenging and confronting what we all believe is the existential threat to our country, our democracy and all humanity—Donald TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE.
It was bizarre and disheartening and frightening. It also had better be the last time it happens.
The candidates did it because the frontrunner is former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act: a bill long overdue MORE. The thinking, I assume, was that by diminishing the accomplishments and denigrating the record of the president Biden served, it would be harder for him to hang his hat comfortably on the Obama administration’s accomplishments
But that strategy was both erroneous and misguided.
It was erroneous because voters were already looking beyond Biden’s accomplishments as vice president. Most voters are familiar with what happened under Obama and want to know what he will do next.
It was erroneous because Biden knows he is on borrowed time as a frontrunner if he doesn’t continue offering his own vision and distinct path forward for the country.
That’s why he is introducing his own plans for health care, criminal justice reform and climate change.
But instead of just critiquing the vice president’s current proposals, the candidates were preoccupied with attacking the most beloved Democratic president in recent history.
Many of the candidates’ attacks on Obama’s policies were overly simplistic and lacking in context.
On immigration, many of the candidates attacked Biden for the record number of deportations that occurred under President Obama. New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, desperate for a breakout moment, confronted Biden aggressively several times. Granted, Biden should have answered more forcefully, but the candidates who piled on are either forgetting or choosing to ignore history.
The next time this comes up, and it will, Biden should remind his Democratic colleagues that the Obama administration’s focus was on deporting criminal undocumented immigrants. They deported murderers not mothers, gangsters not grandmothers.
Biden should emphasize that it is Trump who is ripping mothers from their children.
Biden should continue to remind his colleagues that Obama was trying to work with Republicans to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. But when it became clear that Republicans were not going to work with Obama no matter what he offered, and when too many non-criminal undocumented immigrants were getting caught up in the deportations, Obama issued the executive order know as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA protected undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, shielding more than a million young people from deportation to countries they did not know.
Obama also tried to protect these Dreamers’ parents with DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans), but it was struck down by the courts.
In short, Biden has a lot to tout when it comes to immigration. And he should ask his colleagues whether they really want to demonize the only president who protected Dreamers. Perhaps he could suggest that they turn their fire on the only president who has made it a policy priority to rip immigrant families apart and put children in cages?
On health care and climate change, the attacks came as well. As Biden touted the Affordable Care Act and the public option, the backers of “Medicare for All” attacked the ACA for including private insurance. Democrats should focus on building on what the ACA accomplished and stick to attacking Trump for wanting to take it all away.
On the environment, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency passed historic environmental protections for our air, water and food supply. Trump is slashing them all. Attack that.
On the economy, media questions tend to focus on how Democrats can go after a president who touts the “best economy in history.” Democrats can do it by first thanking Obama for handing Trump said economy.
Then they can point out that Obama was a better steward of the economy than Trump has been. They can further point out that Trump’s economic plans disproportionately benefit his rich friends and big corporations and that this “historically great economy” is not great for those at the bottom.
So please, fellow Democrats, let’s not give Donald Trump any more ammunition. His campaign has no doubt already cut and edited soundbites of Democrats going after Obama. Donald Trump Jr. has praised Democrats for finally realizing how disastrous Obama was. This is political malpractice. Trump even used Democrats’ attacks on Obama at his rally last night.
I am not suggesting that President Obama was perfect. He was not. No president is. But he is the best standard bearer of Democratic values we have had in the White House in a generation. He is also immensely popular with the Democratic base and with independents—not to mention with voters in many of those Rust Belt and Midwestern states Democrats need to win in order to beat Trump.
Democrats’ behavior on Wednesday did not inspire hope that we will be able to win back the White House.
I believe we will. I believe every candidate on that stage would be an immensely better president than Trump.
But let’s show it—not by attacking each other, and certainly not by attacking Obama, but rather by going after the disastrously dangerous president that currently occupies the White House.
Maria Cardona is a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a Democratic strategist and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.