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.

2020 Democratic Debate 3.0

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.

2020 Democratic Debates 2.1 and 2.2

What are the issues? What’s all the debate about?

Climate Change

How long do we have to do something? How to reduce our carbon pollution? Do we invest in R&D, focusing on carbon capture, farm-based sequestration, carbon tax, more EV charging stations? All of the above? That’s the debate.

The main reason this is so dire is that the Republicans generally refuse to work on any real policy (and Trump uses executive orders and rulemaking to attack our home, earth). One apparent bright spot came in the Senate this past week when the Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously moved on a bill that would direct $10 billion toward emission reduction and infrastructure built to mitigate damage from a harsher climate. But it’s a tiny step compared to the major needs.

Healthcare

To have a Medicare-for-all system or improve on the Affordable Care Act? Or will they end up the same thing—a public option slipping into single payer? That’s the debate.

Similar to climate, the Republican side is the lawsuit supported by Republican AGs and the Trump Department of Justice to kill the Affordable Care Act entirely. They have no plan for the millions who would be affected. It would be a major mess, with sick people thrown to the wolves, job losses that might tank the economy—the equivalent of dropping a legal bomb. They have no policy to replace it. Worse, the ACA is relatively conservative in its approach, so any replacement would likely be more liberal and less likely to pass the Senate at a time when immediate action would be needed to restore confidence and save lives.

The Republican lawsuit comes after years of trying to revoke the ACA without ever putting forward even a skeleton policy of what could replace it.

Immigration

To decriminalize border crossings or not? Should any future Trump-style president be able to use the mere fact of crossing as an excuse to separate families? If the law remains criminal, rather than a civil process, that proposition remains. That’s the debate.

(There’s also a lot of media-imposed strife on whether undocumented immigrants deserve to have access to healthcare, because. . . I don’t really understand the issue. They’re humans. Every human needs healthcare at some point. I think some are conflating access with unpaid access, which isn’t really the issue.

I understand part of the media’s MO is to show contrast, but if they can’t effectively articulate the issue, maybe they should do their job first. Once they have explained what the issue is, they can freely show contrast on it.)

The Republicans are much more divided, with a minority constantly eager to blow up any compromise between the parties—it’s been that way for over a decade at this point. Any deal is deemed by the Freedom Caucus types as a bad deal. But, as with the environment and healthcare, Trump is using executive orders and rulemaking to undermine any order or compassion in our immigration system.

Education

Cancel student loans? For everyone or just the lower class? That’s the debate.

On this one I don’t really understand why there isn’t emphasis on increasing the number of colleges and other options to drive prices down. But oh well.

But education also includes the need to integrate primary education. Which is really a need to integrate communities generally, because shuttling kids about rather than having them live in the same neighborhoods with their classmates is pretty nuts.

Once again, Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos are seeking to undermine any useful oversight of our educational system, including giving for-profit institutions carte blanche to reap profits while not providing education.

Impeachment

Would Trump being acquitted in the US Senate help him more than not impeaching him? That’s the debate.

Biden

Is his record from before 2008 more important than his record since? What about 2008-2016? Are those years off-limits because Obama remains popular? Is there redemption for being wrong in the past? How do his mistakes balance against his other votes and acts that remain positive? That’s the debate.

Trump

Vote him out. There is no debate.


In general, the second pair of debates seemed worse than the first in many ways. It might be useful to explain how people choose their candidate.

Let’s go back to 2008, when John McCain lost to Barack Obama. McCain was regarded as a maverick. Come 2012, Mitt Romney was the leader in the race. There were many in the party who kept trying on other candidates, only to find them ill-fitting, and Romney ultimately won the nomination and lost to Obama.

In 2016, similar situation except Jeb! Bush was the leader. Unlike 2012, the folks wanting change latched onto Donald Trump and did not sway.

It works a little bit different for Democrats—different values—but not much:

  1. If there’s an incumbent, a lame duck’s vice president, or a runner-up from the previous cycle, probably go with that or a surrogate for that.
  2. But, if a real, natural leader emerges (think John F. Kennedy), pick that one.
  3. Otherwise, go for something different than last time, unless those alternatives are obvious duds.

For 2020, a #1-style candidate could be Bernie Sanders. There’s some built-in support for #1s. The previous president’s voters, or their own primary voters from the last time around. On the other hand, Joe Biden kind of fits as a #1 with the vice president, having declined to run in 2016. There’s some confusion whether he qualifies, a whole cycle removed.

But if any of the candidates can break away, it will be on the basis of them channeling serious charisma—#2s. A few have had a moment here or there. Bill Clinton was the most charismatic figure of the past 30 years. Ronald Reagan also had good charisma for his time. Kennedy was very charismatic and well-spoken, so much so that it’s still a drinking game to take a shot when a Dem quotes him in a debate. For whatever reason, #2s are fairly rare.

But in 2020, Democrats might not be ready to call it with a #1. There are enough competitors that they can choose alternatives to both Biden and Sanders. There are several people adjacent to each of them, and if any of them show some charisma or other edge to their candidacies, the nomination will be up for grabs.

The other factor to consider is that this field must shrink. As it does so, some of the moderates will fall out, some of the liberals will fall out. The remaining personalities will seem more distinct. The choices clearer. The confusion of trying to deal with so many faces and names will fall away. Those who supported a candidate (donors, voters, and staff) who drops out will shift their support to others. That contraction will be highly clarifying.

2020 Democratic Primary Debates 1.1 & 1.2

Not who won or lost—when I watch debates, that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for personality, honesty, ideas. There are some notes of strengths/weaknesses, below.

Climate Realism

During 1.1 there was a question whether Inslee’s plan would save Miami, which he basically had to say yes to. You can’t stand in front of a city and tell them their city is going to go bye-bye. At least not yet. But it’s likely to, as seas rise enough.

There was a little bit of acknowledgment of that in 1.2 with Buttigieg differentiating between mitigation and stopping further climate change, but the general attitude of politicians seems to be focused on limiting the future damage without pointing to preparedness for the damage that will surely come.

Broad Agreement on Healthcare

The question seems to be whether to shoot for Medicare for All or let a public option evolve into Medicare for All. The differences of all sizes are moot at that point—they are all smaller than the differences that would exist in actually passing any bill change the healthcare system.

There seemed to be some slight nods to the bureaucratic friction in healthcare—one of its worst features is the difficulty of selecting insurance, understanding it, etc. But even those nods seemed very slight, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Half the pain of health conditions for a lot of folks is jumping through all the damned hoops.

US-Middle-East Relations

Everyone seems to agree war sucks, which is nice. The broader question of how to move the Middle East toward a better place wasn’t addressed. Some talk, especially in 1.1 about the Iranian agreement and tensions there. Indirect references to the potential for a peace dividend from a few candidates, without much to say about how to get there.


It’s a healthy field, as my report last week indicated. It seemed like there were more policy differences during 1.1 than 1.2. 1.2 felt much more about positioning than positions. Whether that’s because they saw how 1.1 went and strategized more, because of the contenders present, hard to say.

It felt like climate change was still an afterthought, and although there are only 11 more primary debates, it seems like getting more into the issues of climate would be helpful.

Over the two nights the strongest performances seemed to be (in alphabetical order):

  • Booker
  • Castro
  • Harris
  • Warren

Booker held his own on 1.1, not a complete stand-out, but certainly a contender. Castro had a few stand-out moments (also 1.1) and certainly showed himself to be worth a closer look. Harris, the only one I note from 1.2, seemed well-prepared and personable, but also had more time to speak so that probably helped. Warren has that professorial poise about her, and she’s always well-prepared.

The weakest performances came in 1.2, which may have helped Harris by providing more contrast. Swalwell jumped in with “me, too!” at several points and has some thing about the youth taking over, and Williamson apparently falls into self-help dictation mode whenever she is given a chance to speak.

Sanders (1.2) did alright, but at this point he’s fairly repetitive (if on message). One of his strengths and weaknesses is the fact that he seeded the ground so well with his 2016 rhetoric. That same rhetoric has been broadly adopted by 2020 candidates, both because they want to appeal to Sanders’ 2016 supporters and because it’s become part of the vernacular of the party (itself an oddity—Sanders still isn’t a Democrat).

Biden’s approach (1.2) seems to focus more on his record than is useful at points (doesn’t help that others want to remind us of negative aspects of his record). Others point to their records, but since Biden was around for so long, some of it feels like ancient history (for both the good and the bad). Harris rightly called Biden out for his anti-busing stance, but the electorate back then was more racist and the issue more visible (in 1972 it was largely seen as toxic that George McGovern proudly stated his pro-busing stance).


As the next debate (2.1 and 2.2) is about a month away, there will be some time for everyone to regroup and practice. They all got a chance to see how everyone else did, so the second round should be more informative as to who’s ready to rock and who isn’t.