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The Dems' debates: risk and potential 

With last week’s back-to-back Democratic debates, the 2020 presidential campaign has begun in earnest. And on the whole, the debates were far more enlightening and interesting than I had thought they would be. They could, in fact, play a crucial role in determining which Democrat is most likely to beat Donald Trump.

The Democrats have too many candidates, obviously, but this is a really interesting group of people – diverse and, for the most part, experienced. And the diversity is striking, given the lack of it in the Republican Party. Looking at the candidates stretched out across the stage, we saw something that, while not perfect, looked more like and felt more like what this country is.

In both debates last week, there was substantive discussion about issues: not whether the country needs to dramatically change its immigration policy but what the options are; not whether health care is a right but how to provide it; not whether college education ought to be accessible and reasonably priced but how to afford it.

Right now, what the Democratic candidates have to do is obvious. They have make their distinctions clear without ripping one another apart. And they have to nominate someone who can fire up the party’s liberal-activist base and can also appeal to the broader, more moderate population of average voters.

That doesn't mean that to get elected Democrats have to turn their backs on universal health care, economic equity, and a humane immigration policy. It seems pretty obvious that a Democratic candidate will need to offer bold, progressive alternatives to Republican policies. But it’s time for Democrats of all stripes – and the broader public – to drop the slogans and talk about the complexity of the challenges facing the country.

Do we want to open our doors to any immigrant who wants to come here? Can we afford to do that? Do we want to offer free college to everyone, including the wealthy, or only to low-income students? Is it possible to convince people to give up their employer-provided health insurance? Or will we have to get to universal health care in smaller steps?

The debates offer a chance for that kind of discussion, and the Democrats plan 11 more of them, running on into 2020. (Last week’s two debates were really one, split over two nights because of the number of candidates.)

At some point, the field will start shrinking, as the weaker candidates start to face reality. And then we’ll see whether the Democratic Party can offer voters a credible, electable alternative to Donald Trump.

In 2016, the Republican Party began its selection process similar to the way the Democrats are starting theirs now, with 25 presidential candidates. Some were clearly vanity candidates, but some were experienced and credible. Instead, the Republicans ended up with Donald Trump.

There’s no Democratic version of Donald Trump in the race for the nomination, but that doesn’t mean the Democrats’ couldn't wind up with their own disaster.

Somewhere in that field of 20-plus candidates is a Democrat who can do what Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012. The Democrats need to find that person, and if the candidates can focus on issues rather than tearing one another apart, the debates could play an important role in the lead-up to a singularly crucial US election.

“The future of US democracy will be on the ballot next year,” the Post’s EJ Dionne wrote earlier this week. “No one should pretend otherwise.”

That's not an exaggeration, I think.

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