Dionne: Sorry, but Thursday's debate is about electability

Dionne: Sorry, but Thursday's debate is about electability

September 12th, 2019 by E.J. Dionne Jr. / The Washington Post Writers Group in Opinion Times Commentary

WASHINGTON — It has become a habit to scold Democratic voters who say that electability is their standard in deciding whom to support for their party's presidential nomination.

Yet like it or not, the most important watchers of the Democratic debate tonight will be electability voters, who happen to constitute a majority of the party. And they are right to believe that the priority in 2020 is defeating President Trump.

If the question of who can win is a constant, the dynamic going into this encounter is very different from that of July's faceoffs — and not just because 10 candidates who were there before will be missing. Rather quickly, the Democratic presidential race has come down to three candidates, and then everyone else.

The battle for supremacy is between former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders holding on to his loyalists but having trouble reaching beyond them. The seven others will have to decide which of these three they most want to bring down.

Warren has had by far the best year of anyone. This makes her a target in a way she wasn't before. She profited from not sharing the stage with Biden in the first two debate rounds, insulating her from the fractiousness that was directed initially toward the front-runner but eventually engulfed nearly everyone in the vicinity. Warren thus had the freedom to highlight her impressive list of policy proposals and to look — to use another much-debated word — "presidential."

E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Warren's supporters have been the sharpest critics of the electability test because it is often used against her. The doubts about whether she can beat Trump are sometimes expressed in ideological terms ("she's too left") and, much more guardedly, about who she is. Can a Harvard professor win Pennsylvania or Wisconsin? Could the sexism that helped undermine Hillary Clinton also undercut Warren?

Please hold your fire. I know that bringing up the issue of sexism risks engaging in it. There are multiple reasons Clinton lost, and putting all female candidates in the same category is sexism. Nonetheless, anyone who has discussed the campaign with Democratic voters knows they are asking this question, almost always guiltily.

Warren therefore has one big, if amorphous, task: to persuade doubters that she can beat Trump. How do we know this? A fascinating poll in June by the Democratic data firm Avalanche found Biden ahead with 29% to 17% for Sanders and 16% for Warren. But when the same voters were asked who they would make president with a "magic wand," 21% picked Warren, with Biden and Sanders getting 19% each.

Biden needs a commanding performance. His key assets are the fact that he continues to enjoy the biggest leads in polling matchups with Trump and the sense that he is well-placed to carry Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But Biden's less-than-stellar debate outings (particularly in June) and various missteps that inevitably get a lot of media attention have raised questions about his general-election prospects.

For Sanders, the question is whether he can break out beyond his seemingly rock-solid base of loyalists. A "New Bernie" is both an impossibility and a bad idea for his brand as a conviction politician. But he won't win unless he can expand his market share.

The take I have offered leaves out "everyone else," which is in one sense unfair. California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg are within striking distance of getting into the top three, and someone among Thursday's remaining five could catch a break if one of the current leaders falters.

But that is the point: For now, nearly two-thirds of Democrats support one of the three leaders. And things are likely to stay that way if Sanders' devoted band keeps the faith — and if Biden and Warren persuade Democrats that they can, indeed, throw the world's most inept meteorologist out of the White House.

The Washington Post Writers Group

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com