Debate night split screen highlights the Democrats' Trump challenge

Analysis: The president has honed clear, sharp lines of attack on his 2020 rivals. They're still figuring out the best way to land return punches.
Image: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris,  Donald Trump
Thursday's split screen highlighted the challenge Democrats face as they seek a unified strategy to beat Trump.Reuters/AFP - Getty Images

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By Shannon Pettypiece

The Thursday night campaign trail was a tale of two cities: Houston, where 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls battled in their third debate — and Baltimore, where the man they're running to beat had the stage all to himself.

At roughly the same time the Democratic faceoff began, President Donald Trump strode into a Republican gathering halfway across the country — unashamed to show up in a city he’d called “rat-infested” a few weeks ago — and launched into well-honed attacks on his would-be replacements.

He trotted out the set of derogatory nicknames he's rolled out over months of re-election rallies — "Sleepy Joe," "Pocahontas," "Crazy Bernie" — while warning that a “grim specter of socialism is descending on the Democrat Party,” full of radicals who will destroy America's economic and physical security.

It was a well-practiced performance honed over more than a year of repetition: the same one-liners, the same personal insults and policy barbs.

Meanwhile, in Houston, for the first 30 minutes of the Democratic debate, the candidates struggled to figure out who their main opponent was. They battled each other over health care, with former Vice President Joe Biden echoing Trump’s narrative that the universal health care plan advocated by several candidates would cause millions of people to lose their private health insurance, boosting the tax burden for working Americans. "That's a reality," Biden said. "Now, it's not a bad idea if you like it. I don't like it."

The split screen highlighted the challenge Democrats face as they seek a solid strategy to beat Trump despite the primary season reality that the only way to become their party's nominee is to score points against one another.

Whether or not the president's message is effective, he seems to have settled on it, even without knowing exactly whom his opponent will be. Democrats face the opposite challenge: They know who they'll need to beat, after they vanquish one another — they just haven't decided precisely the best way to take him on, or how to battle one another without occasionally echoing the incumbent's attacks.

It wasn't that Democrats didn't have plenty of criticism for Trump at Thursday night's debate; they just struggled throughout the night to find a clear, focused, unified line of attack against him while clashing.

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Amid the early sparring over health care, Sen. Kamala Harris of California zeroed in on the field's joint challenge: directing the conversation back to the president they were auditioning to replace.

"Here's the thing. Everybody on this stage, I do believe, is well intentioned and wants that all Americans have coverage and recognizes that right now 30 million Americans don't have coverage," she said. "But at least five people have talked, some repeatedly on this subject, and not once have we talked about Donald Trump."

Others on stage sounded similar concerns. "A house divided cannot stand. And that is not how we're going to win this," Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang appealed to party spirit. "Look, everyone, we know we're on the same team here. We know we're on the same team. We all have a better vision for health care than our current president," he said.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey warned that shots taken now could do damage next year. "This must be a moment where we as Democrats can begin to show that we cannot only stake and stand our ground, but find common ground, because we've got one shot to make Donald Trump a one-term president," he said. "And we cannot lose it by the way we talk about each other or demonize and degrade each other. We can walk and chew gum at the same time."

After the pack decided to focus more of their fire on Trump than on one another, they lobbed more than two dozen different lines of attack against the president, accusing him of everything from racism and inciting violence to being generally clueless on trade, immigration and national security.

On immigration, former Obama secretary for Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro said the president has a “dark heart" on the issue. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said anyone who supports Trump's agenda on immigration "is supporting racism.”

But on pocketbook issues such as trade, their contrast message was less clear. Despite criticism of Trump's approach on tariffs, some contenders would not say they planned to immediately eliminate them, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Yang saying they wouldn't repeal all the trade penalties right away.

Buttigieg mocked Trump’s inability to get a deal done with China.

"You know, when I first got into this race, I remember President Trump scoffed and said he'd like to see me making a deal with Xi Jinping. I'd like to see him making a deal with Xi Jinping,” Buttigieg said. “Is it just me or was that supposed to happen in, like, April?”

In Baltimore, Trump had his own mocking jabs ready on the same situation. He again acted out an imaginary negotiating session with the Chinese leader to make the case that he was the leader best-suited for the role: Xi, he said, was "a furious kind of a guy. Great guy. He’s dying to see ... he wants Sleepy Joe."

"Here's Sleepy Joe, 'Wha? Where am I? Where am I?'" he said, trying to imitate Biden discussing a potential deal. Xi, said Trump, would just say "just sign here, Sleepy Joe."

Democrats have appeared focused on proving they're not merely running as a field of anti-Trumps — that their trail priority is providing an alternative policy vision. They're far more likely to attack the agenda they'd like to dismantle than the president behind it. In the third round of the Democratic debate season, this translated into far more narrow hits on policy differences and value gaps with the current commander in chief than broadsides addressing the whirlwind of chaos and dysfunction that has characterized much of Trump's White House tenure.

In Houston, there was little to no mention of complaints that the president may be profiting from his office in unprecedented ways, or of the congressional push to hold him accountable; of the regulatory rollbacks benefiting many of Trump's industry supporters; or of the Russian efforts to aid his last campaign and his seeming indifference to the prospect that they might do so again.

Across the country, it was clear that Trump had taken a sharply different approach, deciding he doesn't need to know which candidate he'll face to make the race a personal one and paint a dire picture of who they are or what they'd do — and just how they'd fall short in the race against him next year.

“Democrats have embraced a dangerous agenda, radical socialism and open borders,” Trump told GOP lawmakers as his 2020 rivals faced off. “Democrats are determined to replicate the most catastrophic failures of world history right here in the United States.”

On Thursday, the president was already looking past that night's debate stage to the one where he'll face the Democratic nominee next fall. "As they hit me left and right, I’ll say, 'African American unemployment is the lowest it’s ever been,' and just leave the stage and say: 'Thank you very much. Good luck,'" he said, drawing laughs and applause from Republican lawmakers. "I mean, how do you lose this debate? How do you lose this debate? That’s a tough one to beat."