Friday, September 13, 2019

The 2020 Democratic Debates (Round 3)

As I (and many others) have said so many times, this is a terrible way to pick a president. Ever since the triumph of primaries over national conventions, the candidate selection process has become more "democratic," destroying our political parties in the process and the parties' traditional function of vetting viable and serious candidates. But this is the system we are now stuck with, and "debates" are now an integral part of it (which should not, however, preclude some serious efforts to reform our debates to make them more about the presidency and less reality TV, perhaps by diminishing the role of reporters and pundits as debate "moderator" and replacing them with other sorts of citizens.)

The one great advantage to last night's debate was that all the debaters were on the same stage for the first time. Also they had more time to speak. On the other hand, the winnowing process that produced this result remains heavily dependent on money and polls. 

But the biggest problem with these debates is the journalism/entertainment-driven tendency to focus on candidates' tactical disagreements that undermine their overall agreement on common principles. Thus, for example, the debate began with the by-now tediously repetitive (and somewhat wonky) arguments about the cost of "Medicare-for-All" and the possible elimination of private insurance, which at least some people are presumed to favor. With Elizabeth Warren, I doubt that too many people really like their insurance company! What people want is good, comprehensive coverage at a manageable cost, all of which gets easily lost in the weeds of arguments about how to pay for "Medicare for All" and whether private insurance will still play a part. (The common sense solution is probably something like Pete Buttigieg's "Medicare for All Who Want It," which adequately addresses most of those controverted issues.) Meanwhile, while the other candidates were all attacking each other's plans, Kamala Harris finally reminded everyone that Republicans want to - and are still trying to - destroy what the Affordable Care Act already has accomplished.  She should  also have reminded everyone that to make any of these things actually happen, the Democrats not only have to keep control of the House but have to win control of the Senate. Whoever the nominee is will need to keep these two realities front and center in the awareness of voters who care about comprehensive health care.

And so the night went on. It will be interesting to see how the debate is interpreted and what the post-debate polls suggest. Personally, I did not get a sense that much really changed, especially when it comes to the ostensibly top three candidates, Biden, Warren, and Sanders. Meanwhile the next debate will include Tom Steyer, whose only significance is to demonstrate the disproportionate influence money plays in our politics, and so we will probably be back to two nights again.

What the Democrats and the country need is real voters weighing in. Iowa, New Hampshire, etc., hardly the best possible system for picking a president, but way better than what these debates are doing.

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