Jessica Tarlov: Dem presidential candidates won’t benefit by bashing Obama

Political punditry is big business, and little except an election itself draws more interest than a debate showdown.

Before the two Democratic presidential candidate debates last week in Detroit, pundits speculated about intriguing plotlines, including:

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont vs. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – the battle for the left.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. – can they find their footing again?

Sen. Kamala Harris of California vs. former Vice President Joe Biden – will she land a knockout blow?

I was certainly caught up in it all. I watched both nights of debates with an eye towards getting answers to these questions.

I was also paying particular attention to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who is one of the few Democrats to win statewide office in Trump Country.

But as with most things these days, the debates – and the polling aftermath – were very much a letdown. For all the hype, they didn’t really move the needle at all. There was no knockout punch. No “aha!” moment for Democratic voters. No rethinking of core allegiances.

That outcome is a story itself, albeit a more boring one than after the Miami debate in June when there was considerable buzz about Harris, as Democrats began an internal debate over federally mandated busing for school integration.

Biden is the legitimate frontrunner and his support is strong. This isn’t just about name recognition. This is about his personality, his policy positions and the feeling that he is best equipped to beat President Trump come 2020.

As President Trump pointed out himself at a campaign rally in Ohio: “The Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically.”

The results of two polls of Democrats confirm Biden’s status.

Morning Consult found 32 percent support for Biden, followed by 18 percent for Sanders, 15 percent for Warren 10 percent for Harris.

The Harvard CAPS/Harris poll shows Biden enjoying twice as much support as Sanders – 34 percent to 17 percent. In this survey, Harris is in third place with 9 percent support and Warren stands at 8 percent. No candidate saw movement outside the two-point margin of error.

There can be little doubt that Harris’ team is disappointed by this outcome. Out of the 20 candidates appearing on stage last week, she needed another burst of momentum the most to solidify her place as the biggest threat to Biden and to be seen as the Democrat best suited to take on Trump.

While the narrative after the first presidential candidate debate had been that Harris’ experience as a prosecutor was going to be a big plus for her, she appeared off balance when pushed about her health care plan and took plenty of incoming on her record.

This all occurred as Biden seemed much better prepared and definitive in his positions. It wasn’t a performance for the history books, but it didn’t raise new questions and it answered a few that were looming about his abilities.

There’s also a new plotline to consider. As President Trump pointed out himself at a campaign rally in Ohio: “The Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically.”

This is not sitting well with former Obama administration officials, political consultants and certainly Biden.

President Obama is a hugely popular figure among Democrats overall and holds an astounding 99 approval rating among African-Americans. Attacking his legacy, or even seeming to do so, is a terrible idea.

As the head of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden, put it in a tweet: “The GOP didn’t attack Reagan, they built him up for decades. Dem Candidates who attack Obama are wrong and terrible. Obama wasn’t perfect, but come on people, next to Trump, he kind of is.”

Democrats vying for the presidential nomination are going to have to figure out a new approach. It’s doubtful they’re going to substantively chip away at Biden’s support and they’re certainly not going to do it by bashing Obama. Back to the drawing board.

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