Mastering the art of storytelling to drive change.

Some words for the whiners: This is how a presidential primary debate works

02 / 20 / 2020

If you were in a room of people last night watching the debate, or, like me, were on a kinetic social media thread, you experienced the full measure of the messiness and complicated nature that defines politics.

No matter how objectively I try to state my opinions about how the candidates are doing, invariably people take it personally. They want you to back their horse! How could you not? And if you criticize them, well then you MUST have some defect that’s blocking you from seeing the light!

A smattering…

I wrote that in the first 10 minutes, Pete and Bernie were showing the raw talent that placed them at the head of the pack in the first two contests. A friend wrote back: “Interesting…I was just thinking the same about Amy & Elizabeth.”

I responded by observing that Warren was taking aim and insulting the other candidates. I mused: “I wonder if it’ll work. To me, it reeks of desperation.”

Another woman friend of mine jumped on that: “she’s had some witty, sharp takes on policy differences. It’s refreshing to see a woman come out like that without caring about the labels that inevitably follow — mean, hostile, deranged, etc. Warren DGAF.”

I had to look up DGAF. I wrote back to my friend that my observation had “nothing to do with gender… Six candidates on stage. One’s language has been more insulting than the others. Good for her if it works.”

I also told my friend that gender doesn’t make an iota of difference when it comes to any candidate — and that ascribing ulterior motives gets us nowhere as a country. Warren is not my candidate of choice, nor is Joe Biden and least of all Michael Bloomberg. It has nothing to do with what sex they are. And when Amy got her blood up and struck back in anger last night — I thought it was great.

But this is the point. This is politics. Everyone has an opinion. I received a few texts last night with the disclaimer: “You know this stuff far better than I do…” Well, not really. There are 330 million Americans — all with a different opinion. And because most of them are eligible to vote, in practicality each opinion weighs equally — if exercised at the ballot box.

Style is a part of politics. Like it or not. I used to hate this fact when I ran campaigns, because I could have the most qualified candidate on paper — and get crushed. This happened more than once. It’s painful, and it’s also a truism.

I’ve been writing to my Bloomberg-supporting friends for weeks that he’s terrible on TV. He just doesn’t have charisma or ease in front of cameras — and his voice is very unfortunate. This showed up in last night’s debate even worse than I had imagined.

Some folks will bark at me to look at his resume, etc. Hey, I’ll back anyone against the fiasco that is Trump. And Bloomberg is obviously an incredibly accomplished person. But part of leading is communicating — especially when you’re the president of the United States. Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, W., Obama and Trump all knew how to work a TV camera to their advantage. It’s important.

When I even suggest that Bernie is a political talent, the people that oppose him go nuts! One commenter who is terrified of him being the nominee wrote candidly about his frustration with the entire debate:

“This is pathetic. The party is a train wreck and needs to be completely rebuilt. They are handing the biggest f’ing idiot in the world 4 more years. I really think you are just too close to be objective.”

He misses the point, of course. The fact that I can point out the political aptitude of a candidate who’s not my choice is the very definition of objectivity.

But I do understand that commenter’s frustration and that of millions of other anti-Trump brethren: We’re worried about selecting a nominee that will have the highest odds of eliminating an awful man from the Oval.

But to whine that: “the whole thing’s a shit show!” — is not much of an observation. This is how it works. It’s a multi-candidate presidential primary. High stakes. A big array of big egos — people who’ve been thinking about this moment for decades. They’re gonna leave it all out on the field.

Four years ago, there were 20 Republican candidates on the primary stage. Most R’s in the country were afraid Trump would be nominated. They thought he could NEVER win. The candidates refused to all get out early and close ranks against him. Trump won. And then he won the presidency.

The point is that NO ONE KNOWS who will be president for four more years. Anyone who says: “Bernie has NO CHANCE, he’s a Democratic Socialist!” — they may be correct or incorrect. At this time in the primary seasons in prior elections, no one thought Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama or Trump would win the White House. Most of them lost the early contests altogether.

This is how a primary works. You want to hear the candidates discuss policy issues? Watch a town hall. Read their websites. The debates are warfare, and they reveal plenty about character and about who can effectively communicate. Those things mean a lot at this level.

Finally, notwithstanding the extant threat that many “Bernie bros” may not turn out in the general if he’s the nominee, that is possible. But after three years of watching the real “sh*t show” playing out on Pennsylvania Avenue, I think all of this fighting will be a distant memory come September. The disgust for this president runs just that deep.

It’s no fun right now for those of us who oppose Donald Trump. But this is how it works. And the nominee will eventually be stronger for it.

The grinder of a primary race makes all candidates better. It’s just painful for many of us to watch.