Eric Davis: Democrats must unite against Trump

Former Vice President Joe Biden used a speech in Iowa last week to make several important points. “The words of a president matter … They can calm a nation in turmoil. They can console and comfort in times of tragedy ... They can appeal to the better angels of our nature. But they can also unleash the deepest, darkest forces in this nation.”

Biden went on to say that “Trump offers no moral leadership; seems to have no interest in unifying this nation, no evidence the presidency has awakened his conscience in the least. Instead we have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced a political strategy of hate, racism and division.”

Biden concluded by saying that "You can't define an American by religion or ethnicity or tribe. America is an idea. It's an idea stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant.”

This is the message that all Democratic presidential candidates should be focusing on over the next several months: the threats Donald Trump presents to American values, American society, and the American political system, and why a second term for Trump would be a clear and present danger to democracy in the United States.

Biden may or may not be the best person to convey that message. Regardless, he has done his fellow Democrats a valuable service by trying to get them to focus on Trump’s failings rather than on exacerbating differences on policy issues among themselves.

Unfortunately, the structure of the nominating campaign to date is making it difficult for this message to get through. The Democratic National Committee and its media partners need to be challenged about the way the debates have been organized, and about the horse-race nature of the coverage of those debates.

The two rounds of debates so far, especially the most recent one on CNN, have seemed to me almost as much game shows as serious discussions of the current state of American politics, with moderators vying to ask candidates “zinger” questions and then cutting them off if some of their responses run longer than 15 seconds.

With so many people on the stage, the candidates rely on scripted sound bites to get attention and to take pot shots at each other. The DNC should reconsider the rules for qualifying for the debates so that there are only six to eight candidates, with all participants on the same stage.

Other candidates could be invited to join debates early next year if they can finish in the top three or four places in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other key early caucuses and primaries. With fewer candidates, debate moderators should allow them enough time to develop their ideas without cutting them off so quickly.

Meanwhile, Trump has shown that there is no limit to how low he will go in terms of appealing to the basest sorts of human nature, no limit to how many lies he will tell, no limit to blaming others for his own failures, whether it is providing moral leadership and being a role model for the nation, or in the choices he has made in domestic and foreign policy. 

Trump will resort to just about any tactic to be re-elected. He knows that remaining in the Oval Office will protect him from charges of obstruction of justice and financial crimes that could be filed against him by federal and state prosecutors. His Democratic opponent will need to withstand one of the most vicious and misleading campaigns ever seen in American history.

Democrats need to stop squabbling among themselves over the finer points of policies. They need to make the case to swing voters in key Electoral College states why Trump’s presidency must be brought to an end at the polls. Moving forward on many much-needed policy changes requires Trump’s defeat first.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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