Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Great Debates (1a)

We continued our quadrennial trajectory into the abyss of an American presidential campaign last night with the much awaited first of 12 Democratic Presidential Debates.  Having 10 candidates on stage together is itself kind of crazy and perhaps not the best way to produce a serious discussion (something our campaigns - and the way journalists cover them - are unlikely to do in any case). In fact, however, it was more of a discussion - and debate - that I had expected. All the candidates did get to be heard, and some really debated each other (e.g., Julilan Castro vs. Beto O'Rourke).

Elizabeth Warren was the presumed front-runner of the 10 and did not disappoint. She started strong and stuck with her campaign's emphasis on how the economy is working well for the few but nor for most. She seems to view everything through the prism of the need to reclaim politics and government from the influence of corporate greed, which is not a bad prism to use. She is especially effective, I think, at using that prism to explain why private health insurance is not such a great thing. She had less to say on immigration, where Julian Castro stood out above the others. In fact, if there was one candidate who probably raised his public profile significantly last night it was Castro, thanks to his impassioned and powerful performance. Fellow Texan Beto O'Rourke spoke more Spanish than Castro but otherwise seemed overly scripted and was generally outperformed by Castro and others. 

From the end of the line, NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio interrupted and otherwise forced himself on the audience's attention. (There may be a good case for a rule against such interruptions and for making moderators crack down more forcefully on such behavior.) He made a coherent case why he thinks he should be seen as a serious presidential candidate. He made a good argument for why the terms of the immigration debate are wrong and need to be changed, and he intervened in the foreign policy segment to raise the ignored issue of Congress's responsibility to resume its rightful role in war-making. But I doubt he won any more points on likeability than he came in with, and that probably matters more in this kind of contest.

Tim Ryan made much of himself as a representative of communities that have been left behind and argued strongly about the Democratic party's "perception problem" as coastal, elitist, and not having much to offer to those left behind. But he tripped on foreign policy, where he was outshone by Tulsi Gabbard, who very effectively highlighted her military service and her strong emphasis on ending our endless wars. 

Easily dismissed as a one-issue candidate (although admittedly climate change may really be the most important issue in the long run), Jay Inslee showed that he can connect coherently and compellingly on other issues as well, and made a good case for the value of executive experience (unfortunately for him at a time when experience is, if anything, even more than usually devalued by voters).

Health care generated a lot of energy. If Warren compellingly made the case for "Medicare for All" and an end to private health insurance, Amy Klobuchar effectively made the case for a more moderate, step-by-step process, expanding Medicare to cover those without insurance while letting those with satisfactory insurance stay that way. 

I had never heard a word from John Delaney before. Like the other minor candidates, he made his case for himself well. He has no chance of advancing in the race, but, like DeBlasio, Ryan, Gabbard, and Inslee, he showed that the minor candidates may still have things to say that are worth hearing.

For what it is worth, Cory Booker spoke the most. Having been both a mayor and a senator, one might have expected him to be higher in  the polls than he is. His performance at the debate confirms that he is serious and forceful, but that probably won't dethrone Warren from the lead or block Castro from possibly overtaking him.

Like the infamous 1976 Ford-Carter debate, history may remember last night mainly for the microphone problem that halted the debate briefly near the mid-point.

All in all, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. The format is absurd, and moderators should be able simply to turn off the microphone when candidates go over their time. But the questions were mostly good, and the exchange gave a good insight into where the party is going. I was pleased that there were no silly "horse race" questions. and that the Mueller/impeachment issue, so dear to so many pundits, was left for last. Delaney rightly pointed out that issue's low salience among ordinary voters. Trump's potential legal problems are important, but not primarily as an issue in 2020. The country has much more immediately pressing problems to grapple with..

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