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2020 Democratic Debate 5.0

A look at the November 2019 Democratic debate.

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.

2020 Democratic Debate 4.0

Thoughts on the October 2019 Democratic debate.

The version number keeps going up, but the bugs don’t seem to get fixed!

Climate change in this nomination race got one forum on CNN and a couple of special episodes of Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show. Its mentions in this debate were scant. A shame.

But many of the issues could have been brought back to climate. For example, diversifying manufacturing and trade deals both have major consequences for the climate. Minimizing transportation costs in manufacturing are just as important as doing so in agriculture. Buying local veggies is good, but so is buying locally manufactured goods.

Trade deals are a net-positive, but they often fall short on worker protections and environmental issues. While some folks seem to think we should avoid trade deals, trade should be a tool for helping on climate. The basic idea is that, all things being equal, a country can prefer goods manufactured with worker protections and environmental protections.


These debates have grown more tedious. It might be the record-setting number of candidate present. It might be the repetition of the same questions and same answers (or same non-answers). There hasn’t been a lot of movement in the race, and most candidates haven’t had breakout moments in the debates. This debate was even less notable, it seemed.

My biggest complaint isn’t the questions or the answers, but the fact that their combined effect is a failure to debate. For example, pressing Warren to say that, yes, taxes will go up, but the total costs will decrease, doesn’t get to the actual meat of the policy difference between Medicare-for-All and public option proposals, which seems to amount to:

  1. Adverse selection—If a lot of people only switch to the public option when they need expensive care, the government costs will be far higher than if healthy people are in the risk pool.
  2. Employer-bound coverage—This has always been a bad thing, only better than people being without coverage. Having your insurance tied to your current employer makes switching jobs harder, makes taking risks on entrepreneurship harder, makes a lot of things harder. It also masks incomes, complicates income taxation, and stifles competition in unrelated industries (because companies compete on something outside of their core market when they have to fiddle with healthcare rather than making widgets).

All these other issues that don’t get covered at all in the healthcare debate because everyone wants to goad Warren into saying the thing she doesn’t want to say.

On other issues, like guns, there are people mad at O’Rourke for proposing a mandatory buyback of certain weapons. Most people will abide by the law, but apparently that’s hard for even Democratic candidates to fathom, so they talk of door-to-door confiscations as though that would be the policy. Not to say that mandatory buybacks are the way to go—any reasonable licensing and background requirements should be about as effective as buybacks. Only to say that treating it like it’s some completely irrational idea is wrong. Many policies are possible, and it’s unheard of for a candidate’s proposal to become law directly, so putting out ideas, discussing them, these are useful. Dismissing them because your opponent isn’t polling well is just lazy.


At some point we should acknowledge there’s a kind of show-your-math need here, where it becomes more important to discuss how you came to a policy than what policy you favor. Getting the right answer is important at the point where ideas become law. But up to then, process matters a lot. How a president deliberates policy is often more important than what their personal policy preference would be, anyway, because the former is what actually gets done. President Obama surely would have wanted a public option, but they didn’t see a way at the time.

Likewise now, we should hear more about why Warren thinks Medicare for All is a better choice and why she thinks it’s passable, compared to a public option. Or why some candidates think ending the filibuster is good, given the failings it’s already caused in nominations. Not whether they do—that won’t be their job or decision as president. But it might show us how they think about the issue. Is it more likely to persuade red state Republicans or to get Democrats elected continuously so that the filibuster becomes irrelevant? Dunno. I do know that unless the latter can be done, we’ll continue to live in a here-today-gone-tomorrow legislative landscape, which isn’t healthy.

2020 Democratic Debate 3.0

Thoughts on the third Democratic debate for the 2020 cycle.

It’s been two minutes since I finished watching and I’ve already forgotten everything that was said.

Just kidding.

Julián Castro has the distinction of the first of the crowd to go into outright mudslinging during a debate. There may be good ways to raise issues of age and style about Joe Biden during a debate. Whatever they be, that wasn’t one. It reminded mostly of those sour 2016-cycle Republican debates.

Sure, the eventual nominee may face Trump in debates, if the president doesn’t pull out. And if Trump does debate the nominee, he’s sure to say some stupid shit and try to take some cheap shots. But the idea that the Dem nominees should emulate Trump seems to miss the point. Trump is an idiot. His gross manner is not useful and copying it will not improve anything. The biggest problem with Trump is that he has ample opportunities to do good and he chooses stupid every time.


If you do want to raise issues of age and the inevitable mental decline we will all one day face, which is an important issue not particular to Joe Biden, nor even to Donald Trump, nor to the executive branch, then do so. Call on the establishment of a standard for disqualification or qualification, not just of presidents, but of legislators and judges, too. Call for better standards for aging family members and business owners, while you’re at it.

Or don’t. Say it should be up to the voters for the executive and for the legislator, and hope that staff and colleagues can take care of the judiciary for us. We should just let the creep of aging catch some off guard and pick up the pieces and let what is a messy problem remain as messy as possible.

But have that conversation, rather than some half-assed insinuation in the middle of a debate where the issue wasn’t even properly raised by Castro or anyone.


On to Beto O’Rourke. Sure, what he said about taking AR-15s and AK-47s isn’t politically correct. It offended a lot of conservatives, including the ones who claim they read gun magazines for the articles. It’s not the way to sell the policy. But at least it is a policy. It’s a perfectly valid reaction to a terrorist attack to say we should take extraordinary measures to prevent it from ever recurring.

The Republicans don’t have an anti-terror policy here. They have a cradled phone they sit by, waiting for the NRA to call Trump and tell him that doing anything at all might be okay, so that Trump can call McConnell and tell him what his policy can be. They aren’t thinking entities in any real policy sense. They are playing the most dangerous game of Simon Says.

Bernie Sanders had to respond to a bonkers question about how his views of socialism differ from Venezuelan kleptocracy. Remember that? That was fun, having a moderator ask a candidate, point-blank, do you in fact not want to be a murderous dictator? I get the fact that folks like Sanders have at times tried to be awfully deferential on foreign policy matters, avoiding criticism of countries that are nominally socialist (or, for the exemplar with conservatives, see Augusto Pinochet). They’re all nuts to do so. Tyrants are tyrants, no matter what books sit upon their shelves.

But it’s another thing entirely to suggest that deference or caginess is somehow an endorsement or adoption of the tyrannical policy. The moderator loses points on that one.

At another point Cory Booker was again asked about his veganism. Somehow it’s taboo to say that we should all improve our diets for the sake of the climate. Just as we should all improve our diets for the sake of our health. I mean, not that the debate had time to cover it, but we have an obesity crisis among our other crises. We should want to change diets. There are (wild-ass guess) billions of dollars made per year on health food and fad diets and books and so forth. It’s a whole industry. Yet it’s something that you can’t say on climate: diet is part of the equation.


Those were the things that stood out to me. If you had others, feel free to leave a comment.

On the whole, not a transformative debate. Which, honestly, we shouldn’t expect. The top candidates aren’t going to take big risks, but it’s still too early for the other top-ten candidates, especially when they’ve already qualified for the October debates. The laggards, well they aren’t on the stage to take a shot.

One suspects after the October debate some more lower candidates will begin to drop out, and the more salient names there may begin endorsing as they do so. It may take longer. Slowly the crowd begins to thin and at the same time the support starts to shift into lanes as it becomes clear who will be around by January and who will not.