The Debates:
It’s the Policy, Stupid

In the presidential debates, much ado will be made about the clash of personalities and about who is lying to whom, but everyday Americans are desperate to hear about policies that will actually improve their lives.

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

The first of three presidential debates will happen tonight in the swing state of Ohio. It is likely to be heated, personal, and mutually accusatory (just the way cable news likes it). Both sides are ramping up for a fact-checking “gotcha,” sound-bite-rich cage match. Our goal shouldn’t be landing the knockout blow that will encapsulate their grievances against Donald Trump.

We’d be missing the point.

At last month’s convention, speakers were united in their (legitimate) criticisms of Trump and his actions. But, to outside observers, the week-long event was disappointingly light on policies that would help a broad swathe of Americans improve their lives. Even in the midst of a pandemic and the worst economic downturn in recent memory, one would be hard-pressed to recall a discussion about childcare, education, infrastructure, or supporting entrepreneurship.

We know. It’s not easy to talk policy during a media circus, and the debates will certainly be one. But we can’t let TV ratings or our confirmation-biased social media feeds control the story. The stakes are just too high.

So, as our candidates prepare for the events, they should plan on a strategy that will win over Democrats, independents, and some Republicans by speaking to what they will do for them, not fall into the trap of petty politics. Here’s how:

  • Ignore the mudslinging—there will be lots of it. A knowing smile and shake of the head will go far. At most, a quick acknowledgement, identifying yet another lie, and moving on will help the candidates focus on actual policy. Likewise, dismiss the inevitable cheap theatrics like planting what they believe will be embarrassing individuals in the audience.
  • Replace the pithy one-liners with brief, quotable, and substantive policy statements—these are the points that most people are tuning in for, as these will actually benefit them, their family, or someone they know. The majority of Americans know Trump is bad news and they don’t want to hear us spend valuable time rehashing every example why. Here are some suggestions for avoiding the Trump circus:
    • Universal, affordable childcare—unleash the full economic potential of working parents by increasing access to affordable childcare.
    • Paid parental leave—provide paid leave to working parents and increase earning power of families throughout their lifetime.
    • Real education reform—educate Americans for new careers in the 21st century economy.
    • Actual investment in infrastructure—improve America’s global competitiveness by rebuilding infrastructure with public/private partnerships.
    • Universal, portable worker benefits—update worker benefits to reflect the needs of America’s workforce.
    • Better access to capital—not just for Silicon Valley startups, improve access to loans for small businesses started by everyday entrepreneurs.

Millions of swing voters need an affirmative reason to vote for Democrats—at the top of the ticket and everywhere else. Loathing Donald Trump is simply not enough. It wasn’t enough in 2016.

Policies that actually improve lives, unfortunately, do not make for good political theater (or reality TV, or social media memes, or whatever). However, they do have meaning for millions of ordinary Americans—the people who will ultimately decide the future of this country. That’s how you win the debates.

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