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In our opinion: After the first Democratic debates, here's what to look for

Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden, center, speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27.
Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden, center, speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27.
Wilfredo Lee, AP

Presidential debates have changed dramatically over the years — not necessarily for the better. And just in time for the Fourth of July, the Democratic party has officially lit the fuse on the 2020 election cycle with a pair of nationally televised debates featuring 20 of the 23 candidates running to secure the party’s nomination for president.

As debates will be a steady staple for the next 16 months, it's worth considering what voters should care about and look for in contests to come.

Most debates have devolved into bumper-sticker slogan slinging. The pithy one-liners are usually directed at whichever opponent currently leads the field. In a made-for-broadcast world, that sort of banter gives a debate the look and feel of a reality TV show. It does little, or nothing, to advance good thinking and elevated dialogue.

As was on display last week, it's quite easy to be against things. But the better question to ask while listening to a debate is, “What is this candidate for?”

While candidates have to be willing to fight against the kind of government they don’t want, they must also be able to articulate the kind of government they do want. Do they have an agenda they can point to that expresses in principles and by policies what kind of government and country they intend to foster?

Also consider whether a candidate appears to be more interested in building bridges or driving wedges. The fundraising departments of most politicians live for wedge issues that prey on emotions to generate maximum donations and campaign contributions. It's obvious some candidates have practiced and planned the perfect social media moment to rev up their fundraising engines.

Another question: Does the candidate talk in generalities or in specifics? Here, the old business rule applies: When you deal in generalities, you rarely succeed; when you deal in specifics, you rarely fail.

Anger should never be confused with an actual agenda, and hope, as important as it is, is simply not a strategy. Candidates should be talking about specific policies, strategies and tactics. No substitute exists for real, concrete and detailed solutions.

And remember, these principles apply just as much to local elections as they do to presidential contests.

On July 15, Salt Lake City will host a critical debate for candidates vying to be the city's next mayor. It will preempt a critical election as city issues have a bearing on the largest concentration of residents in the state. Surely, most of the candidates will tout their commitment to clean air, infrastructure development and helping the homeless. Discerning the differences between candidates will be a difficult test for voters.

Unfortunately, the format for modern debates is often adverse to relaying the right information to those listening, putting the onus on voters to piece out the bombast from the substantial. Fortunately, it's a task made easier by asking the right questions and listening for the right answers.