A plea to progressive political pundits: Stop wringing your hands

A plea to progressive political pundits: Stop wringing your hands
© Getty images

The second set of Democratic debates is over, and the verdict among progressive political pundits is in: The winner was Donald J. Trump. “By the end of the evening,” Dan Balz wrote in the Washington Post, “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.” In an op-ed in the New York Times, Frank Bruni asked “Is it possible that the Democrats have an overflow of talent but no one who’s precisely right? I worry, and not just because that’s my occupation.” The debates, Shannon Pettypiece wrote for NBC News, “spotlighted positions that could turn off some working-class voters — a development Republicans have been counting on.” The promo for Anderson Cooper’s 360 blared “Circular Firing Squad.”

A product of fear and loathing, the anxiety of the pundits is easy to understand. But it is far too early for handwringing, all the more so if it adds momentum to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fifteen months before a presidential election, and seven months before the Iowa caucuses, candidates always try to distinguish themselves by attacking their opponents. Most voters rarely pay attention, especially during the summer.


Most of the time, intraparty attacks do not damage the prospects of the person who wins the nomination. In 1980, George H.W. Bush attacked the “the voodoo economics” espoused by Ronald Reagan. Reagan made Bush his running-mate and defeated Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Remembering Paul Volcker, the man who tamed inflation MORE handily in the general election. In 2008, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWhether a rule is cruel or kind, regulatory analysis shines a light Moderate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Judiciary members battle over whether GOP treated fairly in impeachment hearings MORE sought to boost his wife’s candidacy by blasting Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability MORE for playing “the race card.” Obama won the nomination and the election. And, of course, in 2016, the attacks on Donald Trump by Lindsay Graham, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Senate Republicans air complaints to Trump administration on trade deal Senate passes Armenian genocide resolution MORE, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWhite House makes push for paid family leave and child care reform Tom Hanks weighs in on primary: 'Anybody can become president' GOP senator blocks bill aimed at preventing Russia election meddling MORE, John Kasich, and a host of others were unprecedented in their vitriol — and ineffectual.

The long run-up to the caucuses and primaries often provides the eventual nominee with opportunities to identify the issues that resonate with voters; refine arguments about signature policy proposals; and develop responses to criticism of his/her record. The debates have already helped some of the Democratic candidates — moderate and progressive — to address concerns about open borders, the loss of private health insurance in “Medicare for All,” the costs of a Green New Deal and free college tuition, the implications of reparations for African Americans, and a branding of the nominee as a socialist. The debates also helped them figure out ways to reach voters with pledges to restore dignity, integrity, competence, and adherence to democratic norms in the White House.

The differences among Democrats this year are far, far less significant (especially to the vast majority of voters, who do not get into the policy weeds) than their differences with Republicans and President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE. The recent debates are best understood as episodes, probably quite minor and mostly forgettable episodes, in a marathon in which candidates try to break out of the pack with memorable moments and, yes, attacks on their opponents — a marathon which leaves the nominee plenty of time to make his or her case to voters in the general election.

Instant analysis is, no doubt, a permanent feature of 24/7 political discourse in the United States. But more context — and less angst — would be helpful.  

The two sets of Democratic presidential debates have not provided President Trump with lines of attack with which he was heretofore unfamiliar. Democrats across the ideological spectrum are more likely to unite in enthusiastic support of their candidate than at any time in the recent past. The process may well give the standard bearer an enhanced ability to contrast himself or herself with the Divider-in-Chief. If the Democrats lose, it is unlikely to be because the nominee squabbled with other candidates during the summer of 2019.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.