If the Democrats Master This Single Strategy, They Can Defeat Trump in 2020 | Opinion

One of my favorite things about primary debate season is hearing from former students who took my Presidential Campaign Rhetoric course. Often it's an email, a text, a tweet. "Holy rhetoric! Hope you're watching!" one wrote this week, as the Democratic presidential candidates took the stage for the second time this summer.

In that class, we discuss the concept of framing, among other subjects. Framing focuses on how rhetoric evokes emotion and how language "frames" issues and directs viewers toward what to think. Framing is important because it defines the problem—which then sets limits on viable solutions. Framing assigns blame, identifies victims, and brings emotional and moral weight to bear on issues. Framing was crucial on both nights of the primary debate this week. And framing is something Democrats must master if they want to set the agenda of the presidential race moving forward.

Consider how moderator Jake Tapper asked Senator Bernie Sanders about Medicare for All on Tuesday night.

"You support Medicare for All," Tapper said, "which would eventually take private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans in exchange for government-sponsored health care for everyone."

This is a classic "fear frame," and it was rampant in the discussion of health care on both nights. Using loaded language, Tapper put Sanders on the defensive by positioning the plan as "taking" something—and arguably impeded what could have been a substantive debate. Tapper also noted that former Representative John Delaney had called Medicare for All "political suicide," leaning into Democratic voters' worst fear: President Donald Trump winning re-election in 2020.

The moderators also demanded yes or no answers from Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg on "raising taxes on middle-class Americans" to pay for health care. After defensive semantic exchanges that focused on the middle class "paying higher taxes" and largely ignored savings in premiums, co-pays and deductibles, Buttigieg, finally, explicitly called out the moderators' framing of the question as a "distinction without a difference."

Revolving the debate around "Republican talking points"—a refrain invoked both nights by several candidates—consistently prevented Democrats from explaining what is wrong, who is responsible, what needs to be done and how the broader Democratic vision for health is different from Republicans'.

On Wednesday night, candidates were more successful at taking control of the framing on health care. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand encouraged viewers to not "lose the forest through the trees" because "Republicans and Trump, their whole goal is to take away your health care." And when moderator Dana Bash asked Senator Cory Booker if he would "pull" private health care from people—a framing that implies a loss and a taking—he responded, "This pitting progressives against moderates, saying one is unrealistic and the other doesn't care enough, that, to me, is dividing our party and demoralizing us in the face of thee real enemy here."

Yang capitalized on what we call in my class "foot-in-the-door" comments, pushing the health care door wide open. "Democrats are talking about health care in the wrong way," he said. "As someone who's run a business, I can tell you flat-out our current health care system makes it harder to hire, it makes it harder to treat people well and give them benefits and treat them as full-time employees. It makes it harder to switch jobs, as Senator Harris just said. And it's certainly a lot harder to start a business."

The entrepreneur continued, "If we say, 'Look, we're going to get health care off the backs of businesses and families, then watch American entrepreneurship recover and bloom.' That's the argument we should be making to the American people."

By describing health care coverage as something onerous to employers and employees alike, something that is "on their backs," he presented universal health care as a welcome relief, not a loss.

Health care wasn't the only issue moderators placed in a fear frame. Asking a question Tuesday night about immigration, Bash employed semantic hair-splitting by saying, "You do want to decriminalize crossing the border illegally?"

Bash's question is particularly problematic because it is circular—the last word describes the action, so anyone agreeing to decriminalize something that is illegal would be violating the law. And the framing, once again, put candidates on the defensive, preventing a substantive discussion and instead requiring them to address the underlying fear invoked by "weak" or "open" borders. Bash framed the issue in a way that made Democrats who supported decriminalization seem to be promoting lawlessness and chaos.

This time, it was Warren who called out Bash, stating, "The point is not about criminalization. That has given Donald Trump the tool to break families apart." But as in the health care discussion, this reframing didn't occur until the end of the allotted time, preventing any substantive discussion as to how criminalization has prompted the separation of families and what "decriminalization" actually means.

Candidates discussed immigration more proactively on Wednesday, thanks in part to moderator Don Lemon's framing of the question.

"Secretary Castro," Lemon asked former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro, "you think it should no longer be a crime to cross the U.S. border illegally. President Obama's homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, whom you served with, says that is a public declaration that the border is, quote, 'effectively open to all.' How is he wrong?"

Asking Castro to explain how Johnson is "wrong" gave Castro agency, and space, to describe his own "right" position. Castro was able to give a fuller explanation of the law and its operationalization by Trump, and this allowed Gillibrand to describe the misuse of Section 1325 of the Immigration Nationality Act, and advocate for a civil, rather than criminal, law. Likewise, Biden made a distinction between illegal crossings and asylum seeking.

Still, these nuggets of valuable information for voters were too few and far between. In the lead-up to 2020, Democrats must remember to take control of the framing of issues early, so they can focus on what it is they are trying to explain and why.

Democratic debate
The Democratic presidential candidates take the stage at the beginning of the Democratic presidential debate at the Fox Theatre on July 30. Justin Sullivan/Getty

Political debates are a space charged with agendas: Moderators want ratings, candidates want voters and the media reporting it all want sales. But what the American people need—regardless of how good it feels to watch Sanders' face redden as he shouts, "I wrote the damn bill!"—is an opportunity to hear the candidates speak, uninterrupted, about what exactly their plans entail and how precisely they would enact those plans.

Democrats need to present the American people with a broader vision that distinguishes them from Republicans and is not framed by Republican talking points. Democrats must adopt a proactive frame to set the agenda for the election before the squabbling turns voters off. Being on the constant defensive—against the moderators' questions or fellow Democratic candidates' attacks—distracts from the fact that the America we know is in peril and the argument that the Democrats' progressive policies can save it.

Stephanie Kelley-Romano is an associate professor of rhetoric at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where she teaches a Presidential Campaign Rhetoric course. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Hate Studies, the Southern Communication Journal and Journalism Studies.