Are the Democrats jumping off the cliff?

The Democratic debates have been the political version of "The Bachelorette" — and just as painful to watch.

Put aside the World Wrestling Federation format CNN in particular adopted of sensational voiceovers, over-the-top music, videos and treating it all like a cage match, the gotcha-questioning is designed not to truly explore issues but to drive a wedge between the candidates in the most trivial of ways.

Even more disturbing is how the candidates have taken the bait and gone so far as to criticize and condemn President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCombatting fake news on social media will take a village Is Trudeau on the verge of a shocking reversal of fortune? Even with likely Trump impeachment, Democrats face uphill climb to win presidency MORE, a man with a popularity rating greater than 90 percent among Democrats in virtually all polls. Why in God’s name would these candidates, no matter how liberal, decide it was wise to rip into the former president?

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It also surprises me that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) would structure these debates to ensure that internecine warfare comes to the forefront, starting in July and lasting all the way until the Iowa caucuses. Sure, the networks want gladiator TV and the ratings that go along with it so they can sell advertising. After all, Trump made millions for them in the last election with his rantings and ravings and ratings. But for the DNC to structure so many debates, with so many candidates, guaranteeing so much infighting, was a mistake.

Democrats have taken their focus off the devastating possibility that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE could win the next election. They have failed to make the concrete arguments about his policies, his performance and his outright destruction of American values and ideals. Instead, they have set their sights on each other. Establishing differences, yes, but creating made-for-TV ads for the opposition, not a good idea!

Plus, setting up the possibility of an easy message comparison is not smart. I’ve been doing political consulting for over 30 years, and I can tell you that if the 2020 campaign is viewed as Freedom vs. Socialism, we Democrats are in deep trouble. Furthermore, giveaways vs personal responsibility is not a winning argument either.

We are in danger of falling into the following traps, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory:

  1. Health Care, prescription drugs, the Affordable Care Act and the public option are winners for Democrats — but abolishing private insurance plans is NOT. 
  2. The Trump-McConnell Tax Bill giving 83 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent is a loser for Republicans; a fair tax system that changes that and makes the very wealthy pay more is a winner for Democrats — but raising taxes on the middle class to pay for a myriad of programs is NOT.
  3. College loan reform is a winner for Democrats — but forgiving $1.5 trillion in debt, particularly for the wealthy, is NOT.
  4. Support for funding for college and trade school, like the Obama plan, is a winner for Democrats — but free college for all is NOT.
  5. Better pay for teachers and more support for public schools is a winner for Democrats — but a federal raise of $13,500 for every teacher, costing $315 billion (the Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren says she will unveil plan to finance 'Medicare for All' Kamala Harris reacts to supporter who got tattoo of her handwriting Even with likely Trump impeachment, Democrats face uphill climb to win presidency MORE plan) is NOT.
  6. Comprehensive immigration reform, stopping the separation of families at the border, and expanding asylum programs is a winner for Democrats — but decriminalizing immigration and promising free health care is NOT.

It is so important for Democrats to focus on pragmatic, rational solutions that resonate with the American people, not box ourselves in to proposals that we know will be rejected in November of 2020. We cannot play into Donald Trump’s hands.

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Democrats must be the party of the $15 an hour minimum wage, the party that protects Social Security and Medicare, the party that ensures civil rights for all Americans and that invests in 21st century infrastructure.

Think about it: Trump and the Republicans’ radical, unreasonable and venomous policies on a woman’s right to choose, stronger gun laws, global warming, income inequality, and race and hate and division and fear — that is not where the American people are — Democrats offer a clear alternative. These provide a progressive path to victory.

And how about foreign affairs: coddling tyrants and dictators while dissing our allies, a truly harmful trade policy, chaos abroad and chaos in our defense and foreign policy establishment at home — Trump has no clue what he is doing.

So, why should Democrats nominate a candidate who offers proposals that are anathema to the majority of American voters? Why propose an agenda that has no chance of passing and will not lead to Democrats expanding their majority in the House and, hopefully, taking back the Senate, and sending Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTurkey sanctions face possible wall in GOP Senate Fox's Wallace says 'well-connected' Republican told him there's a 20 percent chance GOP will vote for impeachment White House staggers after tumultuous 48 hours MORE packing?

From now on, these debates had better highlight the differences and the stakes with Trump, not become a circular firing squad that nominates the candidate least likely to win a general election. Democrats have a real chance to turn America around. Let’s not blow it.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.