Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Great Debates: Round 2 (Act 1)

The great presidential debate circus resumed last night with Round 2, Act 1, featuring "top tier" candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and (depending on your criteria) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, "second tier" candidates" Senator Amy Klobuchar and ex-Congressman Beto O'Rourke, and "third tier" (sometimes known as vanity candidates) Governor Steve Bullock, ex-Congressman John Delaney, ex-Governor John Hickenlooper, Congressman Tim Ryan, and popular author Marianne Williamson. At least, that was how (combining conventional wisdom and my own personal perceptions) I had ranked the three groups prior to the debate. 

For some of those on the debate stage, this may have been their last chance to get enough notice to make a difference in the campaign, since the threshold for getting on stage for the September debates will be significantly higher. Undoubtedly there will still be a good number of candidates in September, but they will be less likely to include those that conventional wisdom, the media, the polls, and the donors have decided are not really to be taken seriously. That said, some of them still may have something to contribute to the national conversation. And, while Marianne Williamson's chances of making it to the Milwaukee convention are next to nil, her voice on the stage stood out with a certain moral force that was far from being an irrelevant distraction.

My first reaction to the debate, watching it in real time, was that it was more substantive and less disorderly than the last one, with all its interruptions and talking over each other. The moderators avoided the simplistic visual soundbite, "raise your hand," routine of the last debate, which was all to the good. And the moderators seemed to be more effective at calling time on the candidates. On the other hand, the chronic journalistic oversimplification of issues in terms of what are in effect Republican party talking-points was again on display with the constant questioning about raising taxes on the middle class in order to provide healthcare for all. In general the candidates rose to the challenge of addressing the substantive issues in spite of such distractions. Even so, the journalistic preoccupation with conflict as entertainment and with trying to forcing real-life complexities into campaign-ad soundbites is obviously deeply ingrained in our media's approach to our politics. 

Of all the issues, health care policy clearly seemed the most contentious. On the substance, there remains a clear divide between - for lack of better categories - the party's left and the party's center (represented on-stage largely by the more minor candidates but offstage by the absent figure of Joe Biden). Still, especially among the major candidates, there seemed more effective commonality than seemed to be the case last time.  

No one had some unique "breakout" moment, but the major candidates did well enough. Sanders and Warren both had very good nights despite the predictability of their answers. The more centrist candidates and the media seem determined to make "Medicare for All" sound scary, and Warren and Sanders did a credible job of rebutting that. In the end, Pete Buttigieg's "Medicare for All Who Want It" sounds like where the party probably ought to land on this issue. (They might sall have done better by emphasizing instead the Trump Administration's attempts to eliminate health care for millions.)All Democrats - and much of the electorate - do want some version of universal health care, but in the end this race is really not about competing health insurance plans. It is about leadership, about who can articulate a serious - and electorally viable - alternative to Trump and his political party, and about how "bold" or "safe" that approach should be.

Senator Klobuchar also had a relatively good night. So did Pete Buttigieg, who managed to avoid getting trapped exclusively in either corner, while highlighting his generational significance, reminding us repeatedly of his status as a veteran, and again being the only candidate to employ explicitly religious language.

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