WASHINGTON — Presidential debates moderated by cable-news personalities tend to produce the same, tired questions over and over:
Candidate A, why Candidate B is wrong/unprepared/ill-equipped to lead the country?
Followed, inevitably, by: Candidate Y, how do you respond to Candidate X?
Or there’s the perennial classic: Are you going to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for social program X? And when the candidate tries to explain that any increase in middle-class tax rates will be offset by savings from, say, a universal health-care system, the follow-up question from the tough-sounding moderator is: Yes or no, will taxes go up?
During Friday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire, however, one of the candidates onstage bucked the typical debate script by posing questions of his own — a curious campaign strategy, to be sure, but the result was better, more urgent questions about how the heck the eventual Democratic nominee is going to defeat President Trump.
The candidate was liberal California billionaire Tom Steyer, who sounded more like an angry and concerned citizen freaked about Trump’s reelection prospects than a polished presidential contender clinging to his talking points. It was Steyer who, time and again on Friday night, steered the conversation away from yet another tit-for-tat argument and back to the larger question of what the Democratic message should be to defeat an incumbent president with a climbing approval rating and a strong economy (at least for now).
Steyer cut his way into a disagreement between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg by saying, “I have heard this conversation on this debate stage from these people now every single debate, and they’re all right. Everybody on this stage is better on economic justice and health care than anybody in the Republican Party and a million times better than Donald Trump. That is not the question in front of us today.” That question, of course, is: Who can beat Trump, and how?
He put a finer point on it later in the debate. “I don’t think there’s any question that after this week there’s a real threat that Donald Trump can get elected,” he said. He went to say that a Democrat with any hope of ousting Trump will have to appeal to voters across the Democratic spectrum — white, black, brown, Asian American, of all income brackets, moderates, progressives, and everyone in between. “Unless you can appeal to the diverse parts of the Democratic party,” he said, “then we can’t beat Donald Trump in November.”
There’s a real threat that Donald Trump can get re-elected. There’s one way to beat him—turnout. Turnout across the spectrum of Democratic voters, and that means moderates, progressives, and specifically the Black and Latino communities. pic.twitter.com/W95iB8wIuP
— Tom Steyer (@TomSteyer) February 8, 2020
Steyer touted his support from 24 percent of black voters in South Carolina as evidence that he’s the candidate who can unite the party and beat Trump. But there’s scant evidence that Steyer has the kind of mass appeal that he himself speaks about. Nonetheless, he deserves credit for forcing a conversation, in spite of what the moderators sought to do, that addressed head-on the burning question on the minds of so many anxiety-riddled Democrats.
It’s appalling that every debate doesn’t include some version of the question “Why was Donald Trump elected in 2016, and how does your theory of four years ago shape your election strategy now?” You could go down the line of candidates, and each one would give you an original answer. The ensuing debate would be more illuminating than most of the official Democratic debates so far put together.
But that hasn’t happened much at all. Steyer, by hammering away at the Democratic Party’s formidable challenge in November, is doing his party a favor by forcing the issue now.