Editor’s Note: Dave Jacobson is a CNN political commentator and co-founder of Jacobson & Zilber Strategies, a Democratic media and consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Every debate in presidential politics is a make-or-break, do-or-die opportunity for candidates. The stakes are extremely high and the cost of a gaffe or a poor performance could crush a campaign. Just think back to the 2012 Republican primary debate when former Texas governor Rick Perry’s “oops” moment crippled his candidacy.
The benefits of a stellar debate showing, however, can lead to the crown jewel of presidential campaigns: momentum. A strong performance can also lead to bolstered poll numbers, key endorsements, rock star status on social media and a groundswell of fresh campaign donations that could fill a candidate’s war chest with millions.
In 2020, debates will arguably matter more for Democrats than they have in any recent presidential primary process. With a far-reaching field of potentially 20 to 30 Democrats jockeying for the nomination, contenders will reflect an expansive range of Democratic ideas and brands.
The Democratic party is facing an existential crisis, with some arguing that a centrist stance is a stale and pandering one that cost the party in the 2016 election. Outgoing Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, however, told CNN the party needs to deliver real solutions to attract independent and white working class voters, rather than pushing idealistic policy ideas that have little chance of succeeding. “The rhetoric is cheap. Getting results is a lot harder,” she said.
As we barrel ahead toward 2020, one thing is clear – Democrats must move beyond their current position as the anti-Trump party and reach a consensus message and comprehensive platform. As such, the primary contest will be nothing short of a battle of ideas, as candidates fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. The best platform to stage this battle? Debates. Lots and lots of them.
Already the DNC has come out with its number of officially sanctioned debates: a dozen. The problem? With such a broad field of Democrats and talk of a split system that fractures the candidate field into two debate lineups, 12 televised brawls might not be nearly enough.
In 2016, Democrats had a mere six primary debates, with the party largely split between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Republicans, on the other hand, had twice the number of debates as candidates engaged in a prolonged conflict, hashing out their differing personalities and ideas in a series of raw, brutal, and sometimes cringeworthy debates.
The lack of an early consensus or coronation in the GOP helped spawn a competitive primary. In the end, the GOP’s wide-ranging primary death match produced Donald Trump as its nominee. And, unfortunately for Democrats, he became president.
A robust primary field of candidates, along with a myriad of debates, isn’t necessarily the secret sauce that guarantees victory for one party in a presidential contest. But it’s an effective way to assess the differing visions for our country and determine how to move forward.
With so many Democrats likely to run, and no political harmony within the party’s broader tent, primary voters, grassroots activists, state party leaders, organized labor, environmentalists, among others on the left, should demand more than a dozen debates. The more the merrier. We can, and should, engage in an in-depth, extended conversation about what we, collectively as Democrats, stand for.
Are we the party of Medicare for All, or just protecting and improving the Affordable Care Act? Do we believe in putting our nation on a path to 100% renewable energy, or should we put forth a mix of laws that address climate change and prioritize renewable energy while still embracing some fossil fuels? Do we believe in free college tuition or simply bringing down the cost of higher education? Do we support free trade or fair trade? Should we support all-or-nothing politics or instead compromise from time to time?
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In the aftermath of the 2018 midterm election, Democrats have no shortage of energy, political agendas or ideologies. It’s not a question of enthusiasm. As Democrats, we seem to have maintained that asset, thanks in part to President Trump. The question, instead, as we gear up for one of the most historic and important modern presidential elections, is whether there is an appetite for the battle of ideas that we desperately need in order find out who we are as a Democratic Party.
This battle of ideas will hopefully lead to a nationally unified message. Without it, the Democrats will remain fractured and unable to take on Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Only after a more sustained political dogfight and aggressive debate schedule will the strongest candidate emerge to take back the White House.