The only cure for Debate Fever is more debate. Which is why I spent a chunk of my three-day weekend going through the transcript of last month’s CNN Republican debate.
I was looking for something rare: actual policy proposals. I’m not talking generalities like “secure the borders” or promises to undo achievements like the Iran deal or Obamacare. I wanted to see if any of the candidates had described specific plans to tackle specific problems.
I found exactly one.
“What I would do, immediately,” Carly Fiorina said in response to a question about confronting Russia, “is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet. I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany.”
There were other hints of policy ideas, to be sure: Ben Carson said he’d index the minimum wage to inflation, Jeb Bush vowed to create some sort of force to take out ISIS, and Rand Paul said he’d arm the Kurds. Donald Trump promised “we will do something really special.”
You could argue debates are a poor place to get bogged down by specifics, with the one-minute answers, 30-second rebuttals, and notoriously deficient viewer attention span. But Fiorina’s quick rattling off of plans stood out, making her look more prepared, and frankly smarter, than the 10 men onstage with her. (The wisdom of an increased military posture against Russia is, of course, debatable.)
Tuesday night’s debate among the Democratic candidates is supposed to be boring. There will be no Trump spouting ridiculous non sequiturs. And while the fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the nomination is shaping up to be fierce, that’s unlikely to translate to zingy spats onstage.
But “boring” is exactly what the Democratic candidates should aim for, because “boring” in the context of a debate means: no gaffes, no shouting matches, no pointed personal attacks. It means “interesting” and “informative.”
You don’t need to watch a debate to learn the detailed policy proposals candidates have to offer; campaign websites are littered with those. But moments like Fiorina’s in the last GOP debate can reveal the kind of president a candidate is prepared to be. A candidate who shows a depth of knowledge and a specific plan for tackling serious challenges is someone worth listening to. (Fiorina spent the rest of that debate balancing her good moment with deceptions about her own record and an outright lie about Planned Parenthood; she sounded great, though.)
So who’s likely to bring the boring and throw some real substance into the first Democratic debate? My money’s on Martin O’Malley. The former Maryland governor has the most to prove. O’Malley’s a talented politician with a progressive record, but he’s failed to catch any fire in what has shaped up to be a two-person race. He needs to show he’s as progressive, or more, than Bernie Sanders, and a real alternative for Democrats still uncomfortable with the idea of a Clinton nomination.
O’Malley’s campaign has released extraordinarily detailed proposals on issues like climate change, and his personal style fits this narrative: He’s an affable mansplainer.
Clinton, meanwhile, has one task: to stop Sanders’ momentum. She needs to sharpen some of the differences between her and Sanders, especially in areas where she’s more progressive (like abortion and guns). Her job, after dismissing the email question that’s guaranteed to be the first thing thrown at her, is to remind Democrats why they liked her so much before the campaign launched.
Sanders has proven that no matter who his audience is, he’s the same. Whether he’s trying to shout over Black Lives Matter protesters at Netroots Nations, speaking to a crowd of 20,000 adoring supporters or taking on an arch-conservative audience at Liberty University, he sticks to the script.
That script is focused on the problem of income inequality – he loves to list dramatic statistics about the scope of the crisis. Tonight is an opportunity for Sanders to make a shift in emphasis, from the problems America faces to his solutions for them.
I don’t actually want a boring debate, of course. No one likes a good zinger more than I do – or cringes harder when one fails to land. But the antics that have turned the Republican debates into entertaining television aren’t what we should be hoping for Tuesday evening, and they won’t make the eventual nominee more likely to win next November. A boring debate might not make great TV, but it’ll be well worth watching.