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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

February 21: Combative Democratic Debaters Are Nothing Like 2016’s Republicans

There was a lot of Republican crowing about Democrats in Disarray after the February 19 Democratic candidate debate in Las Vegas. So at New York I offered a reminder of what real fighting looked like:

It’s probably a good time to remind everyone that last night’s battle in Vegas pales in comparison to the regular spectacle of insults, eye gouging, and kneecapping that characterized many of the 2016 Republican debates. Yes, Bloomberg got taken down a few notches as Elizabeth Warren showed why she got a debate scholarship for college. But it was nothing like the incredible disrespect and downright hatred expressed toward Trump by his 2016 rivals, which (unlike Bloomberg last night) he reciprocated in full, giving us all a preview of the depths to which he would plunge presidential communications.

“On the debate stage, Trump stretched his hands out for the audience to see — then insisted the suggestion that ‘something else must be small’ was false.

“’I guarantee you there’s no problem,’ Trump said to howls from the audience at the Fox debate.”

Then there was the endless insultfest between Trump and Ted Cruz, which extended beyond the debate season when “Lyin’ Ted” (Trump’s nickname for the senator) refused to endorse the nominee at the Republican convention (likely because of Trump’s bizarre, outrageous suggestion that Cruz’s father might have been involved in the JFK assassination).

And how about the endless war of contemptuous words Trump aimed at “low-energy” Jeb Bush and the two former presidents in his family? It all finally provoked the normally pacific Jebbie to fire back:

“Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida blasted Donald J. Trump for insulting the Bush family and ridiculed the idea that Mr. Trump could be commander-in-chief during a contentious and sometimes nasty Republican presidential debate in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday, a week before a crucial primary in the state.

“With Mr. Trump leading in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere after his victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he was a ripe target for his Republican rivals, especially Mr. Bush and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who are under intense pressure to halt his political momentum. But the vitriol was so intense that it seemed to surprise even Mr. Trump, a combative figure who had not been so roundly pummeled at a debate before.”

Were you impressed by Warren’s challenge to Bloomberg’s reputation for sexism? Well, its direct predecessor in presidential politics was Carly Fiorina’s angry rebuke of Trump during a September 2015 debate for insulting her appearance and treating it as a disqualifier.

To be clear, the 2016 Republican combat didn’t always require Trump to be a direct participant. Rubio and Cruz regularly took nasty personal shots at each other over the authenticity of their relative positioning on immigration policy. And one of the nomination contest’s key moments occurred in a debate just prior to the New Hampshire primary, when Chris Christie took down putative front-runner Rubio effectively and remorselessly:

“Christie, in the worst condition of any of the establishment challengers, in fifth place in the polls and with no obvious path to the nomination, landed the strongest blows on Rubio we’ve seen yet. Worse yet, Rubio responded to a pounding from Christie for being a paper-thin senator with no accomplishments by playing the part to a T: robotically repeating talking points even as the New Jersey governor mocked him for robotically repeating talking points.”

Now, in the end, all these Trump rivals other than Bush (Fiorina had withdrawn her endorsement of the nominee after the Access Hollywood video confirmed his arrogant piggishness) clamored onboard his foul-smelling bandwagon, and Rubio and Cruz are administration toadies in the Senate. And most obviously, in 2016 Republicans won the White House and both Houses of Congress despite all the discord. So I wouldn’t write off Democratic prospects this November simply because the candidates gambled a bit on aggressiveness in Las Vegas.

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