Friday, June 28, 2019

The Great Debates (1b)

Whatever one thought of the previous night's performance, last night's second debate (or, more precisely, first debate, part two) was presumed in advance to be the more important because of the presence of more of the top-tier candidates (as rated by popular polls). Participating in this second round were former Vice President (and presumptive front-runner) Joe Biden, and his main (other than Elizabeth Warren) rivals in the polls - Bernie Sanders, Pete Bittigieg, and Kamala Harris - and another group of (so far) low-polling, minor candidates - Michael Bennet, Kristen Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang.

A debate with 10 candidates is still a crazy format. As Rachel Maddow said afterwards, "we should never try it again."  There were too many over-the-time-limit answers and too many interruptions and talking over each other. There really needs to be a mechanism for the moderators to exercise more effective control.

That said, I suspect each of the 10 was satisfied in having accomplished what he or she set out to do.  

Last night's debate was noticeably different from the previous night's, however. The sense of urgency to defeat Trump was much more evident. Kamala Harris arguably had the best night. She began by challenging the standard motif of asking Democrats how they plan to pay for their programs and suggested that standard needs to be applied to tax-cutting Republicans. But her best moment was when she confronted Joe Biden on his history on race, especially his position (decades ago) on school busing, which she was able to personalize to great effect. If Biden is the front runner, then the challenge of the debate becomes to outperform the front runner. And she did that. She highlighted her prosecutorial skills, and one could clearly imagine her taking the case to Trump in a debate. 

Biden is not helped by his inability (not unlike Trump) ever to acknowledge that he made a mistake! Nor is he confident enough about his own record to say the obvious - that busing was an extremely unpopular policy in the 1970s and has generally been perceived as having failed in any case. Biden has to hope that (like Obama in 2012) doing poorly in the first debate does not doom him! The other septuagenarian, Bernie Sanders, seemed to hold up better, perhaps because he doesn't change. He says the same thing time after time, as shrilly as ever. He has his clear, consistent position, and he just keeps making his radical critique of a system rigged in favor of wealth inequality. 

One of the minor candidates, California Congressman Swalwell kept highlighting his "pass the torch" generational pitch. At first, that seemed mainly to be an attack on Biden. But then, when he took on Pete Buttigieg about the problem of police and race relations in South Bend, it seemed that he was challenging Buttigieg for the generational-change lane that is one of Buttgieg's strengths. (Swalwell's campaign is focused particularly on guns, and he was especially eloquent on that issue.)

Buttigieg's main strength in the debate was his calm. measured manner, a studied contrast both to the chaos swirling around him on the debate stage and to the chaos constantly created by President Trump. If voters are looking for a stylistic alternative to our bombastic business as usual, Buttigieg stands out. He also got to highlight his status as a veteran, which does not matter the way it once did, but may still be an asset (and certainly helped him in the gun debate). He was also the only candidate to mention religion, exposing in the process his party's self-imposed weakness with that constituency, while challenging Republicans' hypocrisy regarding religion. Republicans, he insisted, have lost all credibility to use religious language ever again.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a debate with more of the top tier candidates, the minor candidates seemed that much more minor. As governors do, former Governor Hickenlooper highlighted his executive experience and accomplishments, but seemed not to go anywhere. Andrew Yang distinguished himself mainly by not wearing a tie.  He spoke the least, which especially hurt him since his ideas, while interesting, are so different from the others that they need some real explaining. Marianne Williamson, whom I had never heard of before this election, made some interesting points - including at one point arguing for reparations, a distracting issue which no one picked up on.

As an old man myself, I am sensitive to the pitfalls of generational appeals. But Buttigieg does seem to be making the right kind of generational argument, which is that it is not about being old or young but about the distinctive challenges of this time, which will not be met by seeking to revert back to the politics of any previous period. Biden's weakness is less that he is old than that he may come across as wanting to return to the way we once were. But, as Buttigieg likes to point out, the pre-Trump "normal" wasn't working well for lots of Americans, which was why they were willing to bet on Trump in the first place.

The next debates will be July 30 and 31 in Detroit. Will the field remain static, or will it have changed appreciably by then?

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