Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Great Debates: Round 2 (Act 2)

As long as former Vice President Joe Biden remains the presumed front-runner (I say "presumed," because, of course, no one has actually voted yet, anywhere), last night's second-act debate was likely to overshadow last night's. Julian Castro had a good first debate but was then virtually forgotten in all the hype about Kamala Harris's going after Bidden. What would happen to Castro now that the luck of the draw had seated him at the adult table! Along with Biden, Castro, and Harris, last night's debaters were Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Bill deBlasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, and Andrew Yang.

Going in, I expected the evening to be about Biden (and whether he could improve his performance over last time) and whether Harris and Booker and Castro could put a dent in his front-runner status - and, additionally, what, if anything, Bennet, DeBlasio, Gillibrand, Gabbard, Inslee, and Yang might add to the show (and whether anything they say may matter).

The second night was somewhat more raucous than the first. This was exacerbated by hecklers in the audience. All of which, of course, highlights the absurdity of having live audiences at these events. The presence of an audience just highlights the theatrical character of these performances, reinforcing the sense that this is really about entertainment.

Health care continues to be the single most high-profile issue that excites Democratic voters. So inevitably it came first in the debate. For the life of me, I can't understand why so many people seem so attached to private insurance. But many are. So the candidates have to work with that. The second night's debate seemed to reflect that in the more nuanced proposals being argued over. The problem, of course, is that it gets very complicated and confusing for many. The candidates would do better to keep hammering home that Trump has been trying to take away the great accomplishments of Obamacare, and that the long-term goal is to work toward a more universal outcome even than Obamacare accomplished.

The immigration debate also got mired in complexities - including a conflation of asylum seekers and other border-crossers. 

The debate was much more contentious in part because of the front-runner's presence on the stage and the resulting tendency to attack him directly.  Fair enough, but so often the attacks were focused on what Biden did or said in the past - the price one pays, I suppose, for having had a long career. Obviously, all the other candidates need to bring Biden down if they are to advance, but the chronic preoccupation with past positions, past votes, etc., while it may weaken Biden, does little to advance the contemporary conversation, which ultimately needs to be about what the party stands for and offers as an alternative to Trump and his party. Listening to the constant attacks on Biden's past record, I missed Marianne Williamson's interventions!

Also, as with the immigration issue, criticism of Biden became a surrogate for criticism of Obama. How much do the Democrats really want to repudiate the last Democratic President, who is still wildly popular? (They might do better to concentrate their ire on President Trump's policies instead of on Obama's.)

That said, Biden survived to fight another day. So did Cory Booker and Julian Castro. Of the more marginal candidates, I thought Michael Bennett had a good night and Tulsi Gabbard had a particularly strong moment when she confronted Kamala Harris on her record as a prosecutor.

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