And the First Debate Is History

Published July 2, 2019 in Warp & Woof

And the First Debate Is History

What Did We Learn?

William Sundwick
On June 26 and June 27, the DNC sponsored its first Presidential Candidates’ Debate, in Miami. It was hosted by NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo. Who won? Who lost? Did we learn anything? Were there any memorable lines?
Twenty (alleged) candidates for president in 2020 faced off in the two-night spectacle. Everybody watching wanted to see blood on the floor. None of us wants to choose between twenty different politicians and other aspirants very much longer. We want fewer choices for next month’s debate in Detroit, fewer still by September, when the DNC qualifying requirements will be stiffer.
The moderators called the shots. It was Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Jose Diaz-Balart, Rachel Maddow, and Chuck Todd – collectively representing the unspoken corporate interests of the Comcast/NBC Universal empire – who determined the questions to ask, and to whom they would be directed. The ten candidates first night were not asked the same questions as the ten on stage for night two. Yes, all candidates presumably had equal chance to raise their hand in rebuttal, or additional elaboration, so we were told. There was crosstalk and shouting at one another allowed (especially on night two).
The live audience was instructed to restrain themselves — they laughed at that admonition.
But we still did learn some things. We learned that early labels on the left-right spectrum for the various candidates were probably too simplistic. We learned that some candidates preferred to define themselves by what they were against more than by what they were for. As a high school debater many decades ago, I remember the coach assuring me that the negative position is far easier to sustain than the affirmative (assigning me, a junior, less-skilled, debater to a negative team). And in a few cases, we learned about policy positions we hadn’t heard before, perhaps invented for the occasion?
Also, we learned some things about candidates’ personalities. This leads to the loaded question: what kind of personality makes for the most successful president? We think being forceful about your beliefs is important. Many candidates were. Others tried, with varying degrees of credibility, to sound committed to certain policies.  If they are practicing politicians, we have their voting records to check.
Overly cautious is not a good look in a forum like this. Some candidates sought to differentiate themselves from the main firebrand on the stage (Bernie Sanders) by appearing more cautious, or “realistic” (John Delaney), but that generally led to a performance that most viewers would consider a loss. Optics this year do not favor either caution or reasonableness!
My conclusion from two nights of the first Democratic Candidates’ Debate is that my preferences changed little. My ranking of the top three candidates going into the debates was: 1) Warren, 2) Sanders, 3) Harris. Coming out, only one ranking changed (tentatively): 1) Warren, 2) Harris, 3) Sanders. I guess I thought Kamala Harris’ prosecutorial zeal directed against Joe Biden was impressive. But not much else changed my mind.
That is not to say there weren’t some memorable comments by some of the candidates, which further clarified in my mind who they were but had little effect on my top picks. Here is a rundown of those moments:
Strength vs. caution: this includes clarity of positions.  Andrew Yang was clear in how he would finance his UBI of $1000/month for every American — a Value Added Tax (VAT) — okay, don’t care what that means, we know it’s used throughout Europe for public finance. Kamala Harris was emphatic when she stated: “nobody should have to work more than one job in order to provide food and shelter for their family,” cool. Joe Biden, on the other hand, was full of equivocation, getting bogged down in abstruse details of how universal health care would work (he’s against Sanders’ Medicare-for-All). Elizabeth Warren was asked what she would do about Mitch McConnell and the Senate blocking everything good, she replied “I have a plan for Mitch McConnell!” (to thunderous applause from audience). Also, there were statements that fit the old saw “Where’s the Beef?” (Walter Mondale’s 1984 debate line against Gary Hart) – e.g., Biden saying we need to “restore dignity to the middle class” (how?), Julian Castro is in favor of “common sense gun reform” (whatever),  Marianne Williamson invented a label for the absent health care system in the U.S., deriding it as “a sickness management system” (meaning what?), and Bernie Sanders totally ducked the hypothetical, “Roe v. Wade is overturned, what would you do?” (perhaps a bad question from Maddow?).
Most combative moments: these might be either good or bad – Warren asserted the need to FIGHT, make the Roe v. Wade SCOTUS decision LAW! Amy Klobuchar shouted out to Russia: stop stealing our elections!  Sanders’ closing statement asserted, “we need guts to make things change!”  Warren will “give Congress 100 days” to get their act together, then ban assault weapons by executive order. And, the most famous moment of the entire two nights: Harris’ full-frontal attack on Biden for his racist connections in the old Senate, considered by some pundits to be a game-changer so far in the primary.
Humor: sadly, not much humor was visible on either night, it would have gone far toward warming our hearts to some of these candidates. Eric Swalwell did illustrate something when he said “as a parent of a two-year-old,” changing dirty diapers often smelled better than serving in Congress – and Harris managed to interject some early levity into night two, when she managed to get the floor after a cross-talking shouting match saying “America doesn’t want to see a food fight” (setting the tone successfully for the rest of the evening). Humor might have been used to establish dominance of one candidate over another — but wasn’t.
Magnanimity: some candidates feel they can trade on magnanimity, or generosity, as part of their persona. We saw examples of this personality trait (contrasting with current occupant of the oval office) from Kirsten Gillibrand, who took pains to describe her objection to Sanders’ program by saying “there’s a difference between capitalism and greed” (won’t dispute that).  Or from Harris, who gently admonished the president by saying he “could use his microphone in a respectful way.” Cory Booker offered on the first night that the “humane” way to deal with immigrants is not to criminalize their being here in the first place, thereby offering full support to Julian Castro, who had just floored the audience with his detailed proposal to repeal sec. 1325 of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (which most of us never knew by its full legal name).
Winners and losers:  hard to say, but we always want to evaluate performances in such debates. The most new Twitter followers coming out of night one went to Julian Castro, but that may have been simply because he was less well-known around the country – and, he impressed viewers. The post-debate analysis after night two, by the MSNBC and CNN crews, was that Kamala Harris hit it out of the park when she landed squarely on Biden. Biden lost, Harris gained, but so did Warren after night one, and Buttigieg and Yang after night two.
Let’s be honest, we want to see some clear losers at this point – more than winners. If Williamson struck out on the second night, so be it. If Gillibrand or O’Rourke just seem too glib to be believed, fine. This is what we wanted from the debate. We don’t care about John Hickenlooper and his assertion that “socialism isn’t the answer” any more than Delaney’s belief in a “realistic” policy approach. We object to Tim Ryan’s characterization of anybody living on the east or west coast as part of the “elite,” out of touch with fly-over country. And, we don’t want the country run by a Silicon Valley tech geek who won’t even wear a tie on the debate stage (Andrew Yang).
Many of them probably hope for cabinet posts or book deals. That’s fine with me. I just want to see no more than five or six on stage by the third debate in September.

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