2020 Democratic Debate 5.0

Another month, another debate. This debate shifted the cast only barely, with Julián Castro missing the cut.

There were a couple of strong moments in the debate:

  • Harris’ defense of the Democratic party against Gabbard’s attack
  • Booker’s closing
  • Booker’s defense of cannabis legalization
  • Sanders’ call for the free world to be sick enough of the suffering from bilateral conflicts like Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s or Israel’s and Palestine’s to finally combine pressure and partnership to get them to the bargaining tables

As Iowa and New Hampshire draw nearer, the media is placing more emphasis on the polling for those contests. Buttigieg’s ability to climb in the polls is notable, if only for what such movement says about organization and taking advantage of an opening. On the other hand, mounting a successful push in early states is both easier and more difficult than in later contests as they come more frequently and as the overall race starts to take shape.

The difficulty comes from the broad spread and high number of candidates. The softer side is that there is a clearer target constituency and relative stability before any votes have been cast. You have several strategies, especially with the relatively minor shifts in the early race. The theory is that folks, including President Obama, have been weighing in for moderation, the media pushes that narrative. There are even a couple of new moderate hats looking to be tossed into the ring. The voters who are receptive are either already for Biden or not. Those who aren’t simply look for the second-running moderate and find Buttigieg’s name. There you go.

On the other hand, some in the media calling Buttigieg the winner of this debate gave me some pause. He did well enough, though the back-and-forth at the end between him and Gabbard over working on security assistance with Mexico was mostly useless, as was his quip that all the experience of all the other candidates hasn’t amounted to squat. I’ll be the first to admit that the state of the nation needs improving, but let’s not pretend we’re starting from a Hobbesian state of nature here and acknowledge the efforts of those other candidates, for Pete’s sake.

But Buttigieg certainly didn’t lose the debate, had no other major mistakes (he didn’t, for example, reply to any of his opponents with an “OK Boomer” and a dab), and so maybe do-no-real-harm given his trajectory constitutes a win? Dunno.

Sanders seemed the most comfortable. While he didn’t have a stand-out performance, I think he’s found his groove. Maybe we should all eat more salad. I’ll be watching December’s debate to see if he can use that poise to make a move.

But it may also have indicated that he felt like coasting a bit, which may be true for Warren, too. Both are in relatively strong positions, and given this is the fifth debate, most candidates should be getting comfortable with the format enough to choose clearer strategies based on their overall positions.


The thing that stands out the most in these debates is the manner the candidates approach most of their answers. The places I give high marks to all involved candidates giving their theories of problems, rather than solutions. Yang is among those who has done this more frequently, but I’ll use the cannabis example from Booker.

And let me tell you, because marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people.

The reason I find it useful is that one assumes Booker will look at other issues through that same kind of theory. He’ll say: “Okay, the policy is harmful. There are people being harmed, while other people go on their merry ways. Let’s end that policy.”

It shows a thought process, not just a regurgitated policy preference. And that’s what I think people running should be about. Experience can tell us a lot, but it’s not the whole story. Bad leaders can still fail their ways to good records. Good leaders can win their way to bad records. A lot of experience is the hand they were dealt at the time. But the process, that speaks to the future. We don’t know what our next president will face, but we do know that even if they have the perfect set of policies, if they don’t have a good process, we’re worse off.

Process alone isn’t enough; you want to see some public experience, as it shows commitment and a familiarity with the counter-processes they will encounter in office. But you want to see the process. You want to know they have that grasp on systems, on cutting through the noise of systems to find what matters and what should change.