2016 Democrats, Debates, Uncategorized

Debate Prep: Can an Old Socialist Learn a New Trick?

November 13, 2015

Round 2 for the Democrats begins on CBS at 9pm Eastern tomorrow night from the confines of Drake University in Iowa.  The first contest was all about Hillary.  This one is important for Bernie.  Martin O’ Malley serves as third wheel.

As we all know, the past several weeks were very, very good to the Clinton campaign, at least in the short/medium term.  After being on offense for months, the Sanders campaign is now forced to react, something they apparently were unprepared for.

With no more debates until the Saturday before Christmas, and no further DNC sponsored events in must-win (for Bernie) Iowa, this is his chance to re-frame the nomination contest.

To an unusual extent for an experienced politician, Sanders crafts all of his own words.  For better or worse, the way he sounds is all him (or Larry David), not the work of consultants, advisors, fixers or even junior speechwriters.  Nobody is going to set him up with a debate zinger to use.

There are advantages to this approach.  He’s authentic, consistent, and knows exactly why he believes what he does.  As such, he tends to think he doesn’t need much preparation, ignoring most of it before the first debate and still being somewhat resistant this time.

If his goal is sounding really good to his core supporters, but not making any progress toward winning the nomination, that’s fine.  In order to truly contend with the well-positioned, but not completely impossible to stop Hillary, he needs to learn an important new trick.

It’s not going negative on his opponent.  Many criticized Bernie for letting Hillary off the hook on her email situation in the first debate.  Now, they figure he needs to get more serious and go after her.  After being attacked by surrogates as being sexist, you wouldn’t blame him for sharpening his message.

Not a great idea.  Most Democrats like both candidates and have at least some residual loyalty to Hillary.  Those who don’t are already with Bernie.  He’s making a big deal about being first about a host of key issues, from Iraq to Keystone XL, from gay marriage to the TPP trade deal.

He’s right, but the voters most interested in who was right (or firmly on the left) all along are already with him.  The national polls have stabilized over the past couple/few weeks.  Hillary is somewhere in the 50s, Bernie in the low-mid 30s.  There’s a big gap, but pull 10 points away from her and it gets really close.

As we’ve known for months, those votes are with African-Americans, Latinos and single women.  Bernie doesn’t need majorities among those groups, just a representative showing.  A little closer fight and the national gap closes.  Better national polls and Iowans on the fence take him seriously.

To accomplish this, Sanders needs to play interest group politics during the debate.  This doesn’t involve changing any positions or beliefs.  However, rather than focusing only on the general merits of his policy positions, he needs to specifically link them to individual parts of the Democratic coalition to show how he’s looking out for them.

So far, this is anathema to Sanders.  He says a $15 minimum wage is necessary because corporations are making too much money and the wages of working Americans have eroded over the past 40 years.  Agree or disagree, he’s not making direct reference to what’s happened to African-American wages, Latino career advancement or the ability of a single mom to support a child or two on a low wage job.

Call it pandering, but it’s necessary.  Republicans are actually doing a better job of hitting these points than Bernie, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina in particular.  Both spent time in the 3rd GOP debate discussing the effect of the Obama economy on women.  Cruz in particular focused on single moms.

While they and Bernie couldn’t disagree more on the cure, he’d be wise to follow some of their speech pattern in addressing the problem.  It’s not asking too much to expect the candidate who participated in the March on Washington to draw a link between his support for Dr. King and how he would address current racial issues.  It’s also not a leap for him to draw a line from there to economic policy.

This was completely absent in the first debate.  The third debate is too late.  If Cruz can do this, so can Bernie.  He just needs to convince himself it’s necessary.  Will he? That’s another matter.  It’s now or never.  Hillary is to his left on gun control.  Many minority voters are not that socially liberal, being against the Defense of Marriage Act back in the day isn’t going to help there.

Most people won’t watch the debate.  Even in Iowa.  The debate kicks off while the unbeaten Iowa football team is in the second quarter.  So sound bites are more important than ever.  The default media approach will be to locate something where he goes after Hillary, so he’ll need to find a couple really compelling comments to make in order to avoid that.

Let’s see what happens

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