The Best John Dickerson Articles To Read Before The Second Democratic Debate

The Republican candidates for president didn’t like the questions at the CNBC debate, but they're probably glad they're not going to be grilled by this next one. Amongst the moderators at the upcoming debate on CBS News is John Dickerson, a reporter whose questions are so good, his colleagues had to invent a new word to describe them: Dickersonian. The Dickersonian style of interviewing is one that cloaks difficult and cleverly-phrased questions with a friendly, casual demeanor; often, these questions succeed in catching politicians off their guard, and that’s something every candidate on stage next Tuesday should keep in mind.

But while Dickerson is a gifted interviewer, that’s not all he does. In addition to his stint as host of Face The Nation on CBS, he’s a political columnist at Slate, and his political analyses are just as sharp as his interviews. Like a fine wine, many of Dickerson’s columns only get better and better with age, and that’s especially true of the pieces he’s written during the 2016 cycle. To get an idea of what sort of questions the Democratic contenders will face during their next round of questioning, let’s look at a few of the best John Dickerson articles to read ahead of the debate.

Donald Trump's Business Experience

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When Donald Trump’s candidacy was merely a month old, Dickerson took a hard look at the qualifications Trump touted to justify his presidential run (which, in retrospect, have remained pretty consistent throughout his campaign). In doing so, Dickerson pinpointed the underlying dishonesty of The Donald’s campaign: He’s pretending that the presidency is a different job than it is, a deception that, itself, is a strike against his campaign.

The promise of a Trump presidency is that he will be able to do things simply by asserting that he can—he’ll whip China, terrify ISIS into surrender, pacify Putin, and fence the border. To say it is so is to make it so. That’s the way it works for Trump in business. But presidents from Lincoln to Reagan to Clinton to Bush have testified that the greatest surprise of the office is when they learn how little power they have. This isn’t because these past presidents are weak, it’s just that the job as the founders designed it is not all powerful.

It’s possible that Donald Trump could adapt his talents to the new environment, but he’s not making the case that he will be able to. He’s saying being a deal maker is all he needs to be. In Trump, we have a job applicant who is selling himself for a job by trying to convince us the job is different than the one we’re hiring him for. This should make the hiring committee suspicious.

The Inner Circle of Hillary Clinton


Long before Hillary Clinton took the stand in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Dickerson wrote about Clinton’s inner circle of trusted advisers, which ended up becoming a prominent issue of focus during Clinton’s testimony. Dickerson explained why all presidents need to have an inner circle like this — and why, if elected, Clinton will have a bigger circle than her predecessors.

A president can’t survive without a protective bubble. The job grinds you down. President Obama says he had to come to accept that there is both the Barack Obama who he recognizes in the mirror each morning and the “Barack Obama” who is the public figure who is attacked and used for public consumption and debate. A bubble of confidants helps maintain that healthy distinction, and when a president loses it, the hope is that they will pull him back. Or, when the importance of the office encourages pride or arrogance, a friend is the fastest way to ground a leader by reminding him of the initial values he once held.


Clinton said the Blumenthal emails were providing her with another viewpoint outside of the bureaucracy. Or those emails might have been appealing because they represented the familiar and comforting ideas that emanate from an internal echo chamber. For a candidate who has had to maintain and rely on a close ring of associates to help her manage public life for more than 20 years, Hillary Clinton faces more bubbles than perhaps anyone who has run for president before.

Jeb Bush And The Iraq War

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Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Jeb Bush created a mess for himself when he refused, on numerous occasions, to articulate whether or not he would have invaded Iraq knowing what we know now, after the fact. Bush largely regarded the hypothetical as unfair, but as Dickerson pointed out, it’s crucial that presidential candidates answer counterfactual questions like that, because they’re invaluable in informing voters about what a candidate’s presidency would actually look like.

As a policy matter, the Iraq war and a candidate’s position on it raises a host of important questions. Bush has said in deflecting questions about Iraq that he doesn’t want to relitigate the past. But explaining what we’ve learned from the past and how we understand it is central to human experience; it’s not some gotcha question. Also, as a practical matter, Republicans don’t want to treat the past as off limits; doing so would rob them of an iconic example of strength from the past: Ronald Reagan’s treatment of the Soviet Union.


It is possible that after doing a careful assessment one could conclude that the United States should never have gone to war in Iraq in 2003 and should not have withdrawn from Iraq in 2011. Arguing that position or any position that seemed the product of hard thinking would inform a lot of voters about a candidate’s worldview. Then voters would know what to expect if that candidate ever gave one of those grim addresses from the Oval Office explaining the rationale for the next U.S. military action. If we knew what the men and women seeking the presidency really thought, then there’d be no gotcha questions left to ask.

Bernie Sanders' Effect On Hillary Clinton

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In April, Dickerson wrote a column arguing that Bernie Sanders’ candidacy — and more specifically, the manner in which Sanders was running his campaign — could actually improve Clinton’s chances at winning the White House. Sanders has since become more vocal in his criticism of Clinton than he was when Dickerson wrote this piece, but it’s still a helpful reminder that, in the long run, the Vermont Senator is probably helping Clinton more than he’s hurting her.

The first bonus that Sanders provides for Clinton, say her supporters, is that he becomes a foil. One of Clinton’s Democratic allies in Congress explained that with a country that prefers general election candidates closer to the middle, Sanders will always offer proof that Clinton is not really that far left. He does for Clinton what Howard Dean did for John Kerry in 2004.

Clinton can have it both ways though. If Sanders doesn’t press the case against Clinton, she can pick and choose which of his policies she can associate herself with in order to maintain support within her own party among liberals (who already overwhelmingly approve of her candidacy). So when Sanders announced his campaign, Clinton just hugged him, writing on Twitter: “I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America’s middle class. GOP would hold them back. I welcome him to the race. –H.”

The Isolation Of Ted Cruz

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Back when Ted Cruz was the only declared candidate for president, Dickerson took a long and hard look at whether the Texas senator had the qualities of a successful president. Cruz had recently bragged that he wasn’t a “community organizer” — a somewhat outdated jab at President Obama — but as Dickerson pointed out, community organizing is precisely the kind of skill a commander in chief needs in order to enact their agenda.

A key requirement for a president is building relationships and mobilizing the bureaucracy. In these two areas Cruz has shown the opposite of proficiency. His Senate colleagues would agree that he’s no community organizer. He is known more for the disorder he creates in his community. In fact, that’s what he’s running on: his stalwart opposition to the temporizing and capitulating GOP lawmakers in Washington. In the Senate, he has created more enemies than friends. This thrills his supporters, but it is not a recipe for governing. Cruz is good at winning a debate, but those talents haven’t translated to winning over the minds of his colleagues who didn’t already agree with him before he started. Their chief complaint is that while he may have focus, he is incapable of striving for anything besides symbolic goals. Governors can’t afford to do that kind of thing. In the same way that a governorship or presidency isn’t the same as a boardroom, it’s also not the same as a courtroom.

Dickerson is bound to bring this same scrutinizing depth of thought to the next Democratic debate. That's good for the democratic process. Whether the candidates themselves appreciate it is a different question entirely.