Whatever these are, they’re not debates

Democratic Debate (Getty Images)
Democratic debate lineup, September 12, 2019 (Getty Images)

We’re now at the halfway point in sanctioned Democratic presidential debates, thank God, having completed the third of six this past week in Houston. Who won? Well…

Once again a lower-tier candidate risked going after the front runner, and once again it had mixed results. People who follow these things will recall that Kamala Harris (and to a lesser degree, Cory Booker) challenged Joe Biden on busing and related issues in an earlier debate. Harris got a bump with some voters and alienated others. She’s since dropped back in the polling.

This time, Julián Castro challenged Biden on health care policy, asking him pointedly, “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Afterwards Biden brushed off any implied meaning in Castro’s question, asserting that Castro just “got his facts wrong.” Many others took Castro’s question to suggest that Biden’s memory was failing — a not-too-subtle swipe at Biden’s age.

Will Castro get a bump? In a sense, he already has, since people are talking about him this week. The problem is that when you take a shot at the front runner, you risk offending a bunch of his or her supporters — confirmation bias, anyone? My guess is that Castro will get more attention in the short term, but not at Joe Biden’s expense.

Pete Buttigieg weighed in on the Castro-Biden exchange in real time, saying “This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable. This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington, scoring points against each other, poking at each other, and telling each other that — my plan, your plan. Look, we all have different visions for what is better…” Castro then interjected “Yeah, that’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete. That’s called an election.”

There are other things you could call it. Castro got some applause from the Texas audience, but I tend to agree with Mayor Pete on this one. That is, the “debates” are becoming unwatchable. They’re too long, they have too many people onstage, and they feel more like game shows — or beauty pageants. Am I the only one who pictures Bert Parks crowing “These are your semi finalists!”?

The petty arguing, interrupting, and ignoring time limits combine to make these events border on childish food fights. Is this any way to choose a candidate?

So, who won? Here are some observations on the candidates, as they lined up onstage from left to right:

Amy Klobuchar — Her best debate so far. She had a strong opening statement, making her case for a candidate between the extremes. Later, she listed three gun control bills that are languishing in the Senate and said “If you want action now, we got to send a message to Mitch McConnell. We can’t wait until one of us gets in the White House. We have to pass those bills right now to get this done.”

Cory Booker — Mixed. I like Booker but his most memorable line was probably “‘March of the Dagnab Penguins,’ for crying out loud.” This prompted my wife to say “What’s with the folksy-ism?” Indeed. Cory, knock it off.

Pete Buttigieg — Another solid performance and well received. Buttigieg continues to get base hits but he isn’t swinging for the fences. Best line: “You know, when I first got into this race, I remember President Trump scoffed and said he’d like to see me making a deal with Xi Jinping. I’d like to see him making a deal with Xi Jinping.” Buttigieg had a strong statement on his decision to come out while facing re-election in South Bend.

Bernie Sanders — Hoarse and, well, loud. Bernie continues to paint in grand, sweeping strokes while still managing to sound like an angry old man. “I, who wrote the damn bill, if I may say so…” Did he move the needle at all? I don’t think so.

Joe Biden — Probably spoke as much as anyone. I have a hard time following Biden much of the time. It’s been pointed out that Biden stuttered as a child and he struggles with fluency sometimes even now. One crystal clear statement struck me as blatantly wrong: “Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime.” Some of Biden’s more ambiguous remarks were supposedly in response to a question about repairing the legacy of slavery. I wonder if Biden’s support among African Americans will begin to erode.

Elizabeth Warren — Perhaps the strongest performance overall. I continue to like Elizabeth Warren a lot while not being head-over-heels for all of her policy positions. She seems at once cerebral, but passionate, and still measured. This is someone whose personal story is compelling and she conveys a sense of possibility. She said twice that she knows what’s wrong and she will fight to fix it.

Kamala Harris — Harris took some chances in this debate. She had a couple awkward moments with seemingly rehearsed lines. “Well, I mean, I would just say, hey, Joe, instead of saying, no, we can’t, let’s say yes, we can.” Harris laughed, but the line was in response to Joe Biden challenging what could or could not be done via executive order. Harris sometimes blatantly ignores time constraints. There is something incongruous about a former prosecutor who wants to ignore the rules.

Andrew Yang — Just no. Yang offered a gimmicky contest to try to get people to sign up with his campaign for a chance to win a “freedom dividend of $1,000 a month for an entire year” to help them solve their own problems. Yes, it was unprecedented, and some believe it to be illegal. I was also unimpressed with the Yang gangsters in the audience who cheered wildly for their candidate. If Yang goes up in the polls after this performance, it really does turn the debates into game shows.

Beto O’Rourke — Got a lot of praise for his response to the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso. O’Rourke was the most straightforward about proposing to take away guns: “I am, if it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield… hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” This kind of rhetoric may play well in a Democratic primary, we’ll see, but it would pose real problems in a general election.

Julián Castro — A candidate who completely slipped my mind in a prior blog post has now made a name for himself, for better or worse, with a lot more Democrats. Castro is going to need a strong follow up to get any lasting benefit from his current notoriety. He risks becoming the guy nobody wants called on.

Among those who weren’t there, billionaire Tom Steyer stands out for failing — barely — to spend his way into this debate. Steyer fell short by only one qualifying poll. Michael Bennet (still one of my favorites) didn’t make the cut either in donors or qualifying polls. I think this is largely due to his late entry into the race. Bennet vows to fight on in early states.

Gillibrand has dropped out. Williamson, et al., is struggling.

Keep in mind that nobody has cast a single vote yet. A lot of people are paying little or no attention to the process so far.

And we’re still four and a half months from the Iowa caucus.

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