The Test of the Next Debate

For close to three years, Democrats have debated whether we need a liberal or a moderate, someone old or someone young, someone black or someone white, someone male or someone female to beat Donald Trump in 2020. What we need to hear from candidates on the stage in Houston is who can lead the country into a new chapter of American history. Primary voters have begun asking themselves that very question in places like Des Moines, Iowa, and Charleston, S.C. It’s a question that I’m not sure any Democrat expected on the debate stage in Houston is prepared to answer.

This election is increasingly looking like it’s the Democrats’ to lose. It shouldn’t be difficult to beat a Republican mired in investigations, historically unpopular with voters, woefully unprepared and clearly unfit for public office. Any Democrat should be able to win that matchup by a large margin. Unfortunately, Democrats aren’t known for making layups, we’re known for missing wide open shots. This time has to be different. After the disaster that was 2016, party faithful hope that lessons have been learned and changes have been made. Democrats have an opportunity to once again take back the White House and put an end to the Trump nightmare. This is a shot that Democrats can’t afford to miss.

As most of the candidates on the debate stage in Houston have now recognized, Donald Trump is a symptom of our nation’s sickness. He is a reflection of our inability to deal with issues of race and class in an honest and open manner. He is the manifestation of George Wallace and Lee Atwater. No 10-point plan will solve the moral crisis that has infected our discourse. The next president will not be able to rely on policy prescriptions to heal the wounds inflicted by the Trump presidency. The next president will have to offer the type of inspirational leadership that has historically been reserved for moments of profound tragedy. Because let’s face it, we are in the midst of a horrific tragedy.

Whether it’s Charlottesville, sh*t-hole countries or the inhumanity occurring every day at the southern border, we have failed to live up to our own expectations. We are a nation fatigued by scandal and conflict. We are a country unwilling to look inward in a moment of needed self-reflection.

Now, some pundits and prognosticators will tell us that the only way to defeat the president is to win over Trump voters. They couldn’t be more wrong. Winning back Trump voters is certainly helpful to the Democratic cause, but it’s not the blueprint or a silver bullet. Attempting to win over Trump voters instead of focusing on issues popular within the progressive movement risks alienating a Democratic base that is determined to vanquish an increasingly unpopular president.

If Democrats allow Trump to continue to tap into the fear and the anger that won him the presidency, without providing a counter-message, he will become a two-term president. 

Democrats don’t have to meet ugliness with ugliness and hate with more hate, that will only continue to ignite the tinderbox that this country has become. If Democrats want to beat Trump, they need to meet hate and division with hope and inspiration. This election can’t be about policies, it must be about people. It must be about who we are as a nation and who we want to be as a country moving forward. Democrats must make the case that our vision — a vision of a better, more just world for everyone — is worth fighting for. We must find a reason to believe in our common purpose and shared ideals.

Make no mistake about it, this will be a turnout election. Democratic voters will turn out to vote because they reject everything that the president stands for. Republican voters will turn out because they will have been whipped into a frenzy over wedge issues like immigration and the “de-whitening” of mainstream American culture. Which means that the outcome of our next election will be placed in the hands of a small sliver of the American public.

Democrats are energized and excited to not just beat Donald Trump but to humiliate him. It’s personal. Whoever emerges successfully out of the next debate will need to convince Americans that what lies ahead of us can be better than what lies behind us. That will be the test of the next debate.

Michael Starr Hopkins is a democratic strategist and the founding partner of Northern Starr Strategies.

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