Debate #2, First Night: Thoughts

Ken AshfordDemocrats, Election 2020Leave a Comment

Last night, in order of their placement onstage, left to right: 

Spiritualist and author Marianne Williamson; 
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio; 
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; 
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; 
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; 
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; 
former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas; 
former Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo.; 
former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md.; and 
Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont.

I was not bowled over and I watched about as much as I could bear. The format, which had (among other things) a mere 15 seconds for rebuttals (effectively forcing sound bites) was painful. But despite the format, there were some good policy debates about the finer points of Medicare For All and immigration.

But it went largely as predicted. The also-rans tried to stand out and they did so attacking Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Delaney, who is polling at 0%, was given an inordinate amount of time and energy — far more than a less-than-1-percenter deserved.

Like other moderates, Delaney repeatedly emphasized that the importance of the upcoming election was to beat Trump and the way to do that was not with massive overhauls of the political system. Ryan, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former congressman John Delaney of Maryland, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper each tried to argue their positions would have more appeal for the mushy center of the electorate.  According to the moderates, we just couldn’t do the kinds of things that Sanders and Warren wanted. This prompted the best line of the night from Warren:

I genuinely do not understand why anyone would go to all the trouble of running for president just to get up on this stage and talk about what’s not possible.

And that was the theme of the night: Warren and Sanders against the other feisty moderates. Buttigieg held his own, and so did Klobuchar, but I don’t think they will see a bump. Crazy Lady Williamson actually made a few good articulate points regarding race, and might see a bump in polls — maybe to 2%.

As Buttigieg said, the moderate/progressive divide is a false one, especially because the Trump forces will play the “socialist” card NO MATTER WHO becomes the nominee. Still, the debate clearly showed the divide. I don’t think the moderates made their case, but again, they were shooting for a different demographic than me.

“If you are watching this at home,” Buttigieg said looking straight into the camera, “and you are a Republican member of Congress, consider the fact that when the sun sets on your career and they are writing your story of all the good and bad things you did in your life, the thing you will be remembered for is whether in this moment with this president you found the courage to stand up to him, or you continued to put party over country.”

Part of the problem were then questions coming from Jake Tapper. “Question after question was framed up from the ideological perspective of a Heritage Foundation intern,” writes Ashley Feinberg at Slate, “or otherwise crafted as a gotcha to generate a 15-second clip for Republican attack ads down the line.”

Throughout the evening, the typical Jake Tapper question took the form of “Elizabeth Warren once said this, now Candidate No One Knew Was Running, please explain why that’s too commie to play in Sheboygan.” And if the candidate didn’t give the desired soundbite against Warren or Sanders, they were rapidly shut down, and someone else got the call. And the designated time for reply meant that Sanders or Warren rarely got to finish a sentence before Tapper was throwing the next dead fish their way. That’s why characters such as former Rep. John Delaney got a chance to speak over, and over, and over. Because Delaney could be counted on to speak directly from the GOP handbook, saying that the more progressive candidates were offering “bad policies” and “free stuff for everyone” and “impossible promises that will turn off independent voters.” And when they had thrown all the Delaney they could, Tapper tossed on some Tim Ryan, and then a good dose of Steve Bullock.

The result was, as The Washington Post noted, that Warren and Sanders spoke more often than anyone else. But rather than getting much of a chance to explain their policies, they did so under constant attack from “outside candidates” who got much “more talking time than would have been expected, given their position in the polls.”

That said, I don’t think there was a “breakout” moment for anyone.

Tonight, round two. Former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris will occupy center stage.

  • Colorado Sen. Michael
  • New York Sen. Kirsten
  • Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro
  • New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • California Sen. Kamala Harris
  • Andrew Yang
  • Hawaii Rep. Tulsi
  • Washington Gov. Jay
  • New York Mayor Bill de Blasio