Senior Political Strategist on Last Night’s Debate: Everybody, Take a Breath

Let’s be honest. As a Democrat, last night was not great. There is no sugarcoating it. From the first few minutes into the debate, my incoming texts and social media feeds last night were rough. This morning’s are not any better. If there is one thing Democrats are good at, it is panicking. To be fair — and I am a Joe Biden supporter with every bone in my body — it is hard to argue it was a good night for him. Well before the debate even wrapped, Democrats were handwringing and suggesting possible replacement candidates. The messages are coming in from all over — family, friends, top political strategists — indicating a five alarm freakout.

I could only think of the similar incoming from another night: Oct. 3, 2012. This was the night of President Obama’s first debate with his opponent, then-Gov. Mitt Romney. Similar to today, conventional wisdom was that Obama certainly lost the debate, and may have lost the presidency. Things were so bad, Democrats started claiming the altitude in Denver may have affected Obama’s performance (not unlike talk of Biden’s cold last night). Not great, Bob.

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In fact, back in 2012, President Obama’s reelection was far from certain. I worked in the White House and vividly recall the challenges we faced: The economy was still recovering from the financial crisis, the Affordable Care Act — which they pejoratively termed “Obamacare” — had been weaponized by Republicans, and the president’s approval ratings hovered around the low 40s. Head-to-head polling had us trailing Romney.

But the picture changed once our opponent was front and center. We aggressively framed him as out-of-touch with regular Americans, running on a platform to help the wealthy. We ultimately prevailed because we made the race a contrast between two very different candidates and two competing visions for the country. As Joe Biden famously says, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”

Deputy press secretary Eric Schultz with President Barack Obama in 2019 as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD.
Eric Schultz with President Barack Obama on a visit with wounded military and their families at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on Aug. 1, 2019.

And by proposing a head-to-head debate earlier in the cycle than ever before, Joe Biden wanted to make sure that happened. While the post-debate spin is not ideal for the president, the bigger picture can’t be lost: Donald Trump and all he represents is back on center stage. This is especially important because until quite recently, many voters did not believe Trump would actually be the Republican nominee again. Today, too many voters suffer from Trumpnesia: not remembering how disastrous his first term was. He is the only U.S. president to have lost jobs, appointed the justices who took away Roe v. Wade, and of course instigated the violent insurrection of Jan. 6.

Last night, Trump called ending Roe “a great thing” and defended Jan. 6 rioters. He refused to commit to accepting the election results. Biden may have gotten off to a slow start, but Trump’s extremism was on full display as the night went on. We have already seen some initial data that he turned off the independent voters in swing states he will need to win.

Now of course 2024 is a very different environment than 2012, with very different candidates who are collectively 43 years older, and I admit I wish last night went better. But in fairness, in 2016, all of us brilliant political experts extolled Secretary Clinton’s debate performances against Donald Trump. Reaction was near universal inside the beltway: Hillary appeared presidential; Trump unhinged. We all know how that story ends.

In fact, Washington has a bad habit of overhyping the here and now. Many thought the sensational tidbits inside the Special Counsel report in February were going to be a game-changer. Same thing with President Biden’s State of the Union Address. Same thing with President Trump’s 34 felony convictions. All the while, the race has stayed razor-thin. Lastly, we are all accustomed to debates in September and October. Very few voters will have this June debate front of mind when casting their ballot.

But make no mistake: This race will be extremely close and will likely come down to the wire. In 2020, Joe Biden won Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin — all three states — by roughly 40,000 votes. This November will likely be just as close. That’s not good for my blood pressure, but it does mean Democrats can and should find the requisite votes to win.

We just have to do a better job of making sure voters know the alternative.

Eric Schultz is a political strategist based in Washington who serves as senior advisor to President Barack Obama. He has consulted on numerous television and film projects including HBO’s Succession, Netflix’s Designated Survivor and most recently A24’s Civil War.

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