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2020 Democratic Debate 8.0

Ah, the Friday-evening debate we’ve all been waiting for.

For this debate we have seven candidates like last time, but we also have the Iowa caucuses under our belts, which have given a little bit of clarity on where things stand. Buttigieg and Sanders neck-and-neck on that one puts the whole thing in a different light, doesn’t it?


Going into the debate, some expectations:

Sanders

Having done well in Iowa, and expected to do well in New Hampshire as it borders Vermont, Sanders will probably be looking to cement his position. His main threat, per latest polls, is Buttigieg, but he may not take the expected bait of moderators to get into a direct confrontation.

Buttigieg

In a similar position to Sanders for very different reasons, in New Hampshire he’s not a neighbor. The main question will be how much time he spends going after Sanders versus trying to tamp down his main moderate rivals (Biden and Klobuchar). It’s likely that he’s not making any dire push for New Hampshire, but isn’t writing it off, either.

Warren

She didn’t make any surprise in Iowa, and she’s not that high in New Hampshire polling (though she is a neighbor), so it seems like she will try to make some moves to help her in the medium-term. She could try to stake out the in-between ground that has been vacant since Booker and Harris have left the race. If she can make the case for the middle-way, that’s probably her best bet to siphon away from both moderates and progressives.

Biden

Having come up short in Iowa, Biden is almost locked-in to depending on the south to make his case for him, so like Warren will probably be less focused on New Hampshire retail and more on setting up for the next act (particularly with Bloomberg increasing his push). With Buttigieg having taken the lead in the moderate lane, he’s got some heat off him and can benefit from lowered expectations by beating them.

Klobuchar

Still pushing along in third in the moderate lane, it’s not clear what strategy she can muster here. The middle-way that someone like Warren might take is too off-brand for Klobuchar to attempt. Her best bet is more of a elder stateswoman play, but (for whatever reason) none of the female candidates have much attempted that kind of strategy.

Steyer and Yang

They’re still there. They have some good ideas, but at least in Yang’s case some weird ones, too. No idea if any of it amounts to anything other than a kind of data-gathering strategy that could be useful to candidates down the road. With Steyer, it’s not clear what he’s doing, so it’s hard to say if he can do it well.


OK. Klobuchar definitely stepped up. We’ll have to wait to see how much it helped, but it was definitely above her normal debate performance. She was the first to invoke gratitude to her fellow senators who did their duty and voted to convict Donald John Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors, along with praising Lieutenant Colonel Vindman for his service to the nation (Biden subsequently prompted the crowd to give Vindman a standing ovation).

Steyer elbowed his way into the fray at least a couple of times, mostly to remind everyone how important it is to defeat the president in November.

Yang did his best to underscore the basic sensibilities of a universal basic income: that it would empower all people to make choices that would benefit their lives in ways that government is either unwilling or unable to do. It would cut through all sorts of red tape to let people make positive changes. It’s a good pitch, but it’s damned hard to sell a panacea as a presidential strategy, whatever its virtues.

Warren didn’t have a bad night, but it didn’t feel like she had a great one either. Seemed to mostly play to her base and reminded me of Sanders in some of the early debates where she stuck to her message without really adding. With more debates coming this month and her current position, she may have felt it was best to play it safe.

Speaking of Sanders, he also had more of an average night, which is at least partly because he’s usually (a little too) good at staying to his message. But it seems to be working for him, at least in Iowa and in New Hampshire.

Biden was steady, though weaker than his best. Which, like Warren (and Sanders?) may have been strategy. Again, with two more debates and contests this month alone, and the thick of the campaign nearly upon us, and it being a Friday night debate, playing it easy makes a lot of sense. (On the other hand, not attempting minor differences, just to see if it helps, is usually a wasted opportunity.)

And finally, Buttigieg. He took some flak, as expected as the biggest beneficiary of the Iowa caucuses. His main contribution to the debate was the repetition of his phrase: “Turn the page.” One naturally assumes that, should he receive the nomination, it would be one of his slogans to wield against the president. He had a decent night for all the criticism of his inexperience. It’s important to note that it’s not merely the lack of government experience, but also life experience that’s rolled into that. He has experienced a decent amount for his age, but compared to the older candidates it’s still significantly less.


On the whole a decent debate if only for seeing how the candidates react with the busy week and Iowa behind them. The upcoming contest in New Hampshire and the other debates and primaries this month will really get us down to the big day coming on 3 March.

In terms of strategy, playing it safe was probably safe, but stepping up like Klobuchar did, especially with others sitting back a bit, should help her. We’ll see how much.


The election occurs in 38 weeks.

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society

2020 Democratic Debate 7.0

For the sixth debate there ended up being seven candidates, and for the seventh, six.

It was something of a bland debate, and not only because, sadly, the candidates of color have left the race or didn’t qualify for the debate. Which is what it is. Having diversity matters, and the process should be changed to better support it in a variety of ways (including shortening the campaign period), but the purpose of that diversity is primarily to ensure that we end up with candidates that will be broadly aware of the challenges facing America (that is, having a slate of candidates with different ethnic backgrounds, social backgrounds, and genders wouldn’t be worth a cent if their outlooks and cares were all the same).

But the immediate blandness was mostly due to the candidates again not having much to gain or lose by going big. With the top four at or around viability for Iowa, there wasn’t a lot on the line for them, and neither of the other two were close enough or had strategic options to push themselves over.

Part of the issue was with the debate questions themselves. In at least some of the questions, the moderators tried to triangulate around controversy or static, which is never a good sign. The contest and the debate aren’t about what Sanders did or didn’t say in a private conversation.

Of course, neither is it about a vote 20 nearly years ago. Or how many past elections were won or lost or who against.

Which is to say that the bottom line is that these debates often tell you more about where the motivations for the campaigns and media are than anything useful in deciding who to vote for or what policies to prefer.

One surprise is that, as the campaign has dragged on, the issue that stands out as being correctly given some of its due attention is climate change. Climate is a hot planet issue… err, hot button issue, and rightly so. It’s a defense issue, which should make it easier in time to cut through the faux conservative points about cost or economy in the face of a threat to both.

One bright spot was Steyer on healthcare when he basically said if Congress was functional we wouldn’t be having the debate. Term limits likely wouldn’t fix that problem, but at least he’s got the real problem: our lawmaking body isn’t responding to the needs of a nation. All the presidents in the world aren’t going to change that. We need to see changes both in who goes to Congress and how those two chambers operate. But I digress.

With the recent assassination of a member of the Iranian government fresh on the minds of the nation, foreign policy inevitably played a bigger role, but in an odd way. Usually in the course of a campaign there are international crises or moments to reflect on the nation’s role in the international order, but they are typically externally-driven and framed in terms of how candidates would have responded. This was a case of Donald John Trump lashing out in an untrained manner.

As that was the framing, the idea that experience would have helped is a non-starter. Brains would have helped. The president doesn’t have a bad strategy borne of inexperience. He has no strategy borne of his complete lack of capacity to ingest, much less digest intelligence. If he had that, he would never have abrogated the nuclear deal with Iran in the first place.

All of which is to say that the answers were of a kind: restore what Donald John Trump has broken. Besides, to do so in a climate that will be far more difficult to achieve even the same results, given how badly the fool has repeatedly undermined our national credibility.


It will be helpful to see some voting, and soon we will. Nothing brings clarity to a race like some of our citizens putting down their choices and letting everyone take a look and then make their own choices based on how things are shaping up.

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2020 Democratic Debate 6.0

I was all prepared to make a bunch of six jokes given it was the sixth debate and there were six candidates, but then Andrew Yang qualified and all those go out the window.

It’s been a busy week between the impeachment vote and this three-hour debate, so I’ll try to be brief.

Klobuchar had a good night. Her cut-in during the back-and-forth between Buttigieg and Warren over fundraising was well-timed and well-delivered: campaign finance reform or bust.

On the whole, infighting over wine caves aside, it was a fairly solid debate for all comers. There were a few slips, but nothing major by anyone.

The healthcare debate seemed to crystalize a bit more this time. It’s about pragmatists who think that they can drag the ACA far enough to get 90% of the way there versus the pragmatists who think that the other 10% is the whole ballgame as long as someone like Donald John Trump can come along, with the Republicans and the 5th Circuit egging him on, and sabotage the healthcare of millions.


The missing faces were missed at this debate. The balancing act that the DNC is trying to manage is not an easy one. This felt about the right upper size for a debate, but how to decide who gets to participate is a different question than how many should.

The other, related point there is that the Democrats should consider curtailing the length of the campaigns a bit. They start so early and that’s a lot of energy to put out there for so long, even from the candidates’ perspectives. If we had started only a month or two ago, and we had had three nights with seven candidates, then two nights with seven, and now arrived at one night with seven, it would have felt more reasonable.

I guess what I’m saying is that the longevity of the campaign process adds a bit to the feeling that candidates are being cut out too soon, where if it was a shorter, more abrupt cutting process, it wouldn’t feel as artificial.

It is 45 weeks until the election. Happy Christmas. Happy New Year. See you in 2020.

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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.

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2020 Democratic Debate 4.0

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.