How Democrats Can Avoid Turning Their Presidential Primaries into a Circular Firing Squad

Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx 6/23/16

Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in New York City.

I’ve been around the business of politics for a long time, and while I’m convinced that with the proper work and plan Democrats will win the White House in 2020, I feel the need to caution the party against engaging in a traditional primary battle. Since the Democratic/progressive/liberal communities seem united on the absolute need to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, I am suggesting that Democrats stay on the high road, unite the party for the 2020 fall campaign, and perhaps in the process build a base of support among voters that will be impenetrable for Trump. With that in mind, I’m offering Democrats some “Political Rules of Engagement,” in the hope that they keep their eyes on the prize of defeating Trump, rather than attacking each other.

Rule 1: Don’t try to stifle new ideas, new opinions, or new plans. Many of the Democrats elected to congress and state legislatures in 2018 are new to the process. They’re not career politicians. For that matter, most of their announced and potential presidential candidates are seeking national office for the first time. All of these people are bringing new ideas, new opinions, and new plans to the table for discussion and debate, and many will be challenging existing authority and power structures. Some of these suggested policies will be good, some will be bad, and some will need a little more meat on the bones. These new leaders won’t always be right, and they will make mistakes along the way. But they will learn and grow, and we will be better as a country for it. So, let’s embrace this outpouring of initiatives.

Trump, on the other hand, stifles debate and attacks and belittles those who dissent—even in his own party. As a result, there are few elected Republican officials willing to stand up to his tantrums. Diversity of individuals and opinion is a great strength of the Democratic Party. Trump, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and some in the media are painting new ideas from the Democratic camp as “socialist” and “fringe.” They will suggest that the views of every single elected Democrat represents the views of the entire party. This will only work if Democrats take the bait, turn on each other, and, so to speak, eat their young.

Instead, with Trump as the counterpoint, a robust Democratic discussion about the future of the country, who we want to be as a nation, and how we get there is vital. Democrats can create a dialogue with America on how to provide quality, affordable healthcare for all; strengthen the middle class by raising wages and helping workers form and join unions; reverse climate change; get money out of politics; provide tax fairness for the middle class; fix immigration; reform our criminal-justice system; enhance voting rights, civil rights, and human rights; provide child care and elder care to an America desperate for it—the list goes on. This can become the foundation for Democratic victories up and down the ballot, as well as for unprecedented growth for the party.

Rule 2: Democrats need a robust debate on the issues instead of misleading or attack ads aimed at tearing each other down. With ten already announced Democratic presidential candidates and more than a dozen more who have publicly signaled they may join the field, things can quickly get out of hand. When you put that many politicians, super PACs, and consultants in the ring, the likelihood that tens of millions of dollars will be spent on a 20-month gnarly mess of charges, counter-charges, attacks, and negative ads seems lamentably high.

Before you accuse me of being naïve on this point, let me be clear. Of course the candidates should challenge each other, and there is certainly room for opposition research—for exposing a candidate’s weaknesses and subjecting them to complete scrutiny (Virginia has reminded us the value of doing so). Moreover, in order to prepare for the fall campaign against Trump, the Democrats need a candidate tested by the fire of the long primary and caucus calendar. That said, any debate or opposition should be primarily about the issues, not about attacking each other’s character or running misleading ads to score political points. It’s unhelpful, its counterproductive, and voters see right through it.

Rule 3: “The Two-for-One-Rule.” Last month, a friend of mine suggested that all the Democratic presidential candidates (and their supporters—that includes super PACs) refrain from being overly negative about the other Democratic candidates in the field. He said any time he feels tempted to say or write something bad about one of the candidates, he would precede it with two positive things. I’m calling it the “Two-for-One Rule.” What if we Democrats all did that? And what if the candidates were forced—policed by us—to do it too? If a candidate spoke negatively about an opponent, people in the audience could remind her or him of the “Two-for-One Rule,” thus compelling the candidate to then say two positive things about their opponent. One of my favorite parts of candidate debates is when the moderator asks the candidates to say something nice about their opponent. Democrats could make that central to the presidential nominating fight. I’m not suggesting Democrats apply Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment (“Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican”) to the Democratic Party. Rather, Democrats should embrace an variation of something their parents taught them: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So, for the purpose of this Democratic nominating campaign, “If you’ve got something critical to say, say two nice things first.” Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

Rule 4: Every Democratic candidate should sign a pledge that they will give their wholehearted support to whoever eventually wins the party’s nomination. Every Democratic candidate who doesn’t win the nomination should campaign full-time for the party ticket in the fall, as if they were the nominee. It might sound obvious, but let’s be honest: Democrats haven’t always followed this rule. To dislodge Trump from the presidency, there’s no room for anything short of complete, total, one-thousand percent support.

How do we make any of this happen? As with anything else in politics, people need to organize around it. Start the discussion with voters in the 13 states that will vote between February 3 (the date of the Iowa caucuses) and March 3 (Super Tuesday). Build a discussion on social media. Urge organizations that issue endorsements on the Democratic side to make agreeing to these “Rules of Engagement” a condition of their endorsement. Enlist a single candidate to sign on, and then use that as leverage to sign up others. Encourage the Democratic National Committee to make these conditional for support and included in the candidate debates.

Democratic voters have a chance to pick the candidate whom they believe will be able to beat Trump, represent their values, and define the future they want for this country. If Trump has his way, the 2020 presidential election will be a firestorm. By following the path laid out here, the candidate who emerges as the Democratic nominee can go into the fall campaign ready to battle with a unified party, a positive image, a strong foundation with voters built on 20 months of campaigning on the issues, and a mandate for the change we so desperately need.

Now, let’s get to work.

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