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Freak Out About Democrats Attacking Barack Obama Day


Thursday was apparently Freak Out About Democrats Attacking Barack Obama Day. I hope we’re done with it. One day of this was one too many.

To begin with: The whole thing is overstated. It’s true that there were some attacks on Obama’s policies during the Democratic debates this week, especially on immigration. But these were mostly about where the party should go next, rather than whether Obama was a good president. The supposed conflict was a frame that appealed to CNN, which sponsored the debates, and also one that former Vice President Joe Biden is eager to emphasize (because Obama is popular among Democrats, it’s in Biden’s interests to organize the contest as a referendum on the former president, with him as Obama’s stand-in).

But the freak-out does raise two substantive issues.

One is covered nicely by Paul Waldman of the Washington Post, who explains that of course Democratic candidates are going to debate Obama’s legacy. After all, that’s the party’s status quo, so to debate policies at all will involve critiquing those supported by the former president. As long as Obama remains popular, it’s probably smart for candidates to imply that they’re his real heirs even when they’re critical of specific choices he made. It’s a healthy sign for the party that they can criticize him while still celebrating his achievements.

A second point the debate raises is whether Democrats, by squabbling among themselves, are doing President Donald Trump a favor. Well, no. The audiences for these debates are small, and contain mainly committed Democrats. They don’t need persuasion to work hard to defeat Trump, and they’re not going to be driven away by a little bickering. My guess is that there are probably more Republicans hate-watching these debates than actual swing voters or ambivalent voters. Most people in those categories don’t pay much attention to politics and aren’t going to have any idea what the Democrats were doing in July of 2019.

At any rate, media effects like these generally have a very limited duration. No one is going to remember these debates by this November, let alone November 2020. Nor will anyone’s attitudes about Trump or the eventual Democratic nominee be affected by any of it. Although pundits always warn that some clip of candidates attacking each other will be used by the other party in the general election, that in fact rarely happens. It’s not even clear that such clips, used in political ads, would have much effect.

In other words: Parties shouldn’t worry about whether their debates can serve as effective infomercials for the general-election campaign. That’s not what the nomination process is for. Indeed, that is exactly what the national party conventions have become, and those don’t take place until next summer – when most voters will finally be ready to start paying attention.

1. Julia Azari on the debates and party politics.

2. Dave Hopkins on the second debate.

3. Shannon C. McGregor and Daniel Kreiss at the Monkey Cage on conservatives and social media.

4. Dan Drezner on incompetence in U.S. foreign policy.

5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Liam Denning on how climate will figure in the nomination process after Washington Governor Jay Inslee bows out. Inslee, to me, has been the most disappointing contender of the cycle; he’s been running as a single-issue candidate, but keeps forgetting that in debates and town halls.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.