Democratic Candidates Must Treat Each Other as Honest Opponents, Not Toxic Enemies

Barack Obama weighed in with some thoughts about the 2020 Democratic primary on Facebook. Before getting into the specifics of what he wrote, let’s give a shout-out to our friend Ed Kilgore, because the former president linked to an article he wrote.

You’ll get an idea of Obama’s point from Kilgore’s piece, where he reviewed the advice given to the field of candidates from multiple pundits, in addition to giving his own. A quote he mentions from Ron Klain summed things up.

A debate about ideas is healthy, a debate about motives is not. The Democrats should hash out their differences in 2020 without slashing up one another — not casting aspirations on each other’s integrity, motivation or intentions. It is that latter path that creates an opening for Trump’s reelection in 2020.

Here’s how Obama put it.

As this contest heats up, I’m hopeful that all our candidates and their supporters will honor the difference between a healthy competition among allies and the deployment of misinformation and baseless attacks that we’ve seen too much of in our politics. Such slash-and-burn tactics will not just divide Democrats and make it potentially harder to win in November. They also are corrosive to our democracy and will add to a cynicism that prevents us from tackling big problems.

America is hungry for a better kind of politics right now. A primary process that not only tests bold new ideas, but also shows our fidelity to the truth and our ability to disagree in a fair, respectful way, is part of what’s needed to get us there.

It is important to be clear about the distinction both Klain and Obama are making, because this is one of the biggest obstacles we face when it comes to the ability of Democrats to pull our politics out of the gutter. As Obama indicated in that last paragraph, the Democratic primary doesn’t just present a challenge to our political discourse, it could also provide an opportunity to showcase a better politics that climbs out of the gutter where Donald Trump resides.

As part of his 2015 State of the Union address, Obama spoke to the need for a better politics.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives…

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

I remember wanting to throw something at my television after that speech as pundits commented on those particular remarks. The common thread was: “The president talked about a better politics. But he didn’t offer any conciliation to Republican ideas.” The reason I found that so infuriating was because those pundits were oblivious to what the president was actually saying. They weren’t able to distinguish between having heated policy debates and attempts to demonize your opponent. As Klain put it, we need to recognize that it is possible to explore different ideas without “casting aspersions on each other’s integrity, motivation or intentions.”

I recognize that, given what we’ve seen from Donald Trump and Republicans lately, it is difficult to avoid impugning their motives. A party that has no agenda other than fear mongering and has consistently put political power over the interests of the American people is one that needs to be called out on their motives. But this is where the advice from Adam Gopnik about being able to distinguish between honest opponents and toxic enemies comes into play.

What’s needed against Trump now is…not an ideologically narrow, politically focussed opposition but the widest possible coalition of people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan.

The guttural level of political discourse practiced by the current president and his congressional enablers is a direct attack on the basic tenets of democracy, which will only survive in an atmosphere where there is a “passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument.” That is what Michelle Obama was talking about with her admonition of, “when they go low, we go high.” What people who misunderstood her fail to recognize is that she said that during a speech in which she called out almost everything Trump stands for. What she didn’t do is join him in the gutter of bullying taunts.

Democrats have an opportunity during the presidential primary to demonstrate the kind of discourse we can have among those who are honest opponents rather than toxic enemies. Let’s have a heated debate about ideas and policy differences as a demonstration of what real democracy can look like. But any candidate who joins Republicans by attacking the integrity, motivation, or intentions of their Democratic opponents should be called out immediately.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.