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Dems’ PBS Debate No Match for Trump’s WWE Campaign

The Democratic contenders left the impeached president unscathed while they wrangled over wine caves.
December 20, 2019
Dems’ PBS Debate No Match for Trump’s WWE Campaign
Wonks chatting civilly on PBS. (Justin Sullivan / Getty)

The day after the historic impeachment of a buffoonishly corrupt president, the Democrats vying to replace him gathered for a nationally broadcast public-television debate. It was three hours of pure PBS injected into the veins of the electorate: two parts MacNeil/Lehrer, one part bickering Bert and Ernie, all moderated by Judy Woodruff.

Over the first hour, the Democratic contenders went deep on policy, doling out catnip for college-educated liberals whose media diet is daily dishes of Michael Barbaro and Steve Inskeep. In the second hour, they nitpicked each other on such urgent issues as the result of the Indiana Treasurer race, whether millionaires’ kids should get free college, and how four-figure disclosed donations are a harbinger of oligarchy.

This is the PBS party—and fine, sure, our governing class could use a bit more of that these days. But it left me wondering whether they’re up to the campaign challenge ahead. Because President Trump doesn’t play by Downton Abbey rules. What comes next won’t be a civil PBS discussion but a ladder match against the WWE president.

The debate began with a question about the politics of impeachment, which each candidate surely prepped for. It was an open-ended offer to take a battering ram to the president. Yet the seven candidates failed to deliver a single memorable line among them.

As the debate went on, the specter of the president occasionally emerged again. Tom Steyer argued that nobody is better suited to take on an unconventional president than an unconventional candidate like himself, and had his best moment of the whole campaign chastising his opponents for infighting given the Trumpian threat. Mayor Pete dinged Trump for “echoing the vocabulary of dictators around the world.” Senator Klobuchar called out Trump for his thin skin and mocked him for taking his ball and going home from NATO after the hot camera caught other world leaders laughing about him.

But overall the debate treated the president as just another problematic Republican, not much different in degree from the terribleness that every Republican since Goldwater has represented—and that’s when he was mentioned at all.

On issue after issue, the candidates either quibbled with one another on the margins, dove deep into policy details, or tried out on the audience some stock stump-speech shtick.

But they all utterly failed at pivoting to a specific critique of the president. After six debates, it makes me wonder whether these candidates are even minimally familiar with the details of their campaigns’ research books on the sitting president.

Senator Sanders had memorized the exact number of billionaires that donated to each of his opponents’ campaigns. Senator Klobuchar knows Mayor Pete’s CV better than I know my husband’s. Warren and Buttigieg were both deep in the weeds on each other’s donor histories. On issues ranging from nuclear energy to special education to violence against the transgender community, the candidates were prepped on the problems and proposals. And for the umpty-ninth time, the candidates eviscerated each other over their health care plans—all of which are to the left of the plan implemented by their own party’s popular president emeritus.

But when it came to Trump, we didn’t hear a single critique that couldn’t have been delivered by your apolitical suburban aunt at Christmas dinner. During a heated back and forth on the candidates’ respective campaign-finance policies (which, in the grand scheme of things, barely differ at all) not a single candidate took the opportunity to mention that all of their arguments pale in comparison to the sitting president literally inviting foreign interference into the campaign and enjoying an unprecedented enrichment of his family through taxpayer dollars. A casual viewer would have come away from the debate thinking that having a fundraiser in a wine cave is the most relevant financial scandal in the campaign.

Look, I understand that the candidates’ answers were elicited by the questions, and the PBS moderators mostly asked about policy. But the candidates easily could have worked their way to answers about the president. Instead, most of his malfeasance went without scrutiny. We didn’t hear a single detailed discussion of just how unscrupulous Trump’s behavior was with Ukraine.  And nothing meaningful about, say, Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, George Pappadapolous, the administration’s Goldman Sachs Gilded Cabinet, MBS, the Muslim Ban, Erdogan, Charlottesville, Francisco Galicia, Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, the Trump Corporation, Crowdstrike. . . . Need I go on?

Given the stakes of this election, shouldn’t the remaining Democratic candidates be using the biggest platforms they have to take on Trump rather than providing viewers with in-depth dossiers on one another’s donors?

Confronting Senator Klobuchar after the debate, CNN’s Chris Cuomo put it well: “You guys are talking interior politics about health care, granular differences, and you have a man who is one of the biggest gorillas we’ve seen on the campaign stage with a big stick—and you guys are playing badminton.”

Say what you will about Trump and his mental acuity, the president is undeniably adept at regurgitating the top hits from Fox News and the White House oppo shop. I’m confident that Trump knows more about Hunter Biden’s contract with Burisma than he does about 90 percent of the laws that he’s signed. In the general election debates, he will be able to go 20 rounds on any one of these Democrats’ records, muddying the waters, exaggerating their worst offenses, smearing them with conspiracies cobbled together on r/The_Donald. It will be months of asymmetric misinformation Trumpian warfare.

Were there any signs this evening that any of his opponents will be able to survive in the ring with him? Yes, Mayor Pete demonstrated that he’s capable of taking a clothesline and responding with a piledriver. But that’s nothing compared to what’s coming.

When considering the general election you will often hear clichés like Never wrestle with a pig or You can’t beat Trump at his own game. And while there is an element of wisdom in such advice, the reality is that the president’s deftness at manipulating our current media environment makes rough confrontation inevitable.

If a skilled WWE heel knows anything, it is how to brand his opponent. How to break him.

For the Democratic nominee to be best positioned to defeat him, the rest of these debates will need to be a little less of a Newshour roundtable and more taking down Trump from the top rope.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.