Democrats Should Focus on a Campaign of Ideas, Not Motives

With such a large field of candidates, the Democratic presidential primary offers the opportunity for the party to have a healthy debate about a whole host of different policy ideas. But that will only happen if the candidates treat each other as honest opponents rather than toxic enemies. Here is how Ron Klain suggested that things could go off the rails.

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.

While it came from a news site rather than one of the candidates, that is precisely why I objected to the article and video produced by ThinkProgress insinuating that Bernie Sanders’ status as a millionaire had changed his approach. There are a whole host of ways to evaluate candidates that don’t have anything to do with attempting to divine their motives from the fact that they made a lot of money from book sales.

But in his response, Bernie Sanders made the same mistake. First of all, he didn’t address himself to the author of the piece he objected to and instead, went after the Center for American Progress (CAP), the think tank that founded the site. Here is the statement from ThinkProgress in response.

Just as the piece he objected to went after motives based on money, Sanders repeated the error. In the letter he addressed to CAP, Sanders wrote: “I worry that the corporate money CAP is receiving is inordinately and inappropriately influencing the role it is playing in the progressive movement.” He was even more explicit in an email he sent out to supporters.

In other words, rather than identify the specifics of his disagreements with CAP, or ThinkProgress, Sanders maligned their motives by going after their funding sources. That approach, much like the one in the ThinkProgress article, tends to silence the debate about ideas in an attempt to malign someone’s integrity.

I also suspect that the reason Sanders responded to CAP rather than ThinkProgress is that, in going after a think tank rather than a news site, he was attempting to avoid accusations of challenging press freedom. It’s not like the article and video he objected to was the first time a media source unfairly maligned a Democratic candidate. We’ve already seen repeated stories about what candidates eat, how they eat it, and counters they stand on. We’ve also seen a media that is more interested in covering the “lingering cloud” over Elizabeth Warren’s heritage than in her voluminous policy proposals.

While it is always important to call the media out when they engage in that kind of coverage, it hardly represents some kind of coordinated attack from monied interests. As a matter of fact, some of Sanders’ own staff have engaged in similar attacks in the media prior to joining his team.

The important thing to remember is that this is not a situation in which there is a need to take sides. Neither ThinkProgress nor the Sanders campaign comported themselves well in this exchange. But we can learn from it. Whenever there is an attack on a candidate’s motives or integrity, we need to call it out and demand that the conversation be focused on ideas.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Nancy LeTourneau

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