Published August 7, 2019 in Warp & Woof
Debate in Detroit
Is Bloody Combat What We Wanted?
This is getting to be a spectacle. The second Democratic Presidential Debate was held July 30 and 31 in Detroit. It was marked by much more visceral combat than the first debate in Miami a month earlier. Was this by design? Or, has the temper of Democrats become more frayed over the last month?
The stage was set for the first night, Tuesday, featuring the two giants of the left, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, getting rolled by a gang of lesser polling moderates. Then Wednesday was to be the trial by fire for the titular leader of the pack, Joe Biden. CNN chose its team of moderators: Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Don Lemon – experts in following the prescribed format emphasizing attack and rebuttal. That appeared to be the plan.
Mostly, it worked. If this is what you wanted, you got it in spades. Night One saw ideological divides drawn sharply between Sanders/Warren (who continued to live up to their reputed non-aggression pact) on the left versus the rest of the stage, except perhaps Pete Buttigieg and Marianne Williamson (independent paths?). Beto O’Rourke seemed lost, not knowing where to place himself. Rebuttals are always easier than affirmative cases in debating, so the dynamic clearly favored Sanders/Warren. Similarly, Night Two tended to favor Biden – he appeared more confident than during the first debate, at least when he kept on script. He even managed a barrage of counterattacks against his tormenters (especially Kamala Harris and Cory Booker).
But some read Biden’s flailing counterattacks as a sign of weakness — exasperation at continuously playing defense. It seems unwarranted, considering he still holds the lead in polling. He probably got his greatest respite when other candidates chose, instead, to go after each other! Harris vs. Tulsi Gabbard was a good example, or Bill De Blasio vs. Julian Castro. Both secondary fights were initiated with a parrying thrust by one against the criminal justice record of the other. Gabbard had much of the same ammunition that Biden was also using against Harris’ prosecutorial history. Castro attacked De Blasio for refusing to fire the officer who choked Eric Garner to death. Neither target recovered well, and it served to take heat off Biden, at least temporarily.
CNN’s attempt to direct the tone of the debate toward more combat has been seen by some analysts, and candidates afterwards, as an unfair bias toward Republican talking points. If this was the tactic it was entirely appropriate though. Whoever wins the nomination will face those talking points in the general. Nevertheless, it’s not clear that the strategy succeeded in avoiding the obfuscation and deflection that many lamented in the Miami debate. Buttigieg grandstanded when he faced the viewing audience and advised any Republican office holders who might be watching to think of their “legacy” in the history books. Not sure any of them care. Harris declared that Trump’s tariffs are “betraying the American people.” That seemed a tad hyperbolic. But it did heighten the dramatic tension of the event.
Who emerged in an unexpected better position than they went in? Possibly Andrew Yang on Night Two? John Delaney scored a hit on Night One when he became the main spokesperson for the “revolt of the centrists.” And, looking at Sanders and Warren as a tag team, rather than opponents, on Night One was refreshing. One can even fantasize a Sanders/Warren (or Warren/Sanders) ticket in 2020. Their posture on Tuesday was more akin to a “good cop/bad cop” scenario (or A/B marketing tool) than anything else.
With more stringent entrance requirements for the third debate in September, it’s unlikely we’ll see more than seven or eight on stage in Houston. Looking at polling, and performance in Detroit, it seems most likely that we won’t have John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, or Jay Inslee to kick around. Likewise, Steve Bullock or Kirsten Gillibrand (she came across Night Two as the less confident “new kid” at the cafeteria lunch table trying desperately to be accepted by the “cool kids”). In any case, getting to 2% from 1% polling average AND doubling total donations is a high hurdle for many of the two dozen candidates.
Even with fewer on-stage appearances, the third debate on September 12 and 13, hosted by ABC, will probably continue to feature drama and spectacle over substance. But perhaps we can divine something about the candidates’ characters from that? Even if we can’t decipher their policy positions.