Twelve quick takes on the third Democratic debate

First disclaimer: I don’t agree with the Democratic National Committee’s debate criteria and encourage Iowans to keep listening to all the presidential candidates.

Second disclaimer: I doubt anything that happens more than four months before anyone votes will significantly affect the battle for the Democratic nomination. As Dan Guild has shown, history tells us more than half of Iowa Democrats who participated in the 2004 and 2008 caucuses decided in the final month.

That said, here are my thoughts on last night’s three-hour debate at Texas Southern University in Houston.

1. The September 12 debate was the best of 2019 so far, thanks to mostly good work by the moderators: Linsey Davis, David Muir, and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, and Jorge Ramos of Univision.

Most of the questions were substantive and there were only a few silly ones (like asking Booker whether more people in Iowa and Texas should be vegan).

The ABC/Univision panel also kept better control of the clock, which meant disparity in speaking times was less extreme than in the June and July debates.

2. Journalists continued to overlook some important topics. I had hoped to see more questions about issues that didn’t come up in June or July. Instead, candidates spent a lot of time on ground already covered.

Granted, health care and gun safety are salient issues for many Democrats. But so are reproductive rights and gender pay equity, disability rights, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, and judicial appointments. David Dayen pointed out, “we’ve now gone three [debates] without anything about Wall Street, private equity, and the fundamental structure of the economy,” adding that “In 2016 this was actually a major topic in all the Democratic debates. After the swing to deregulation we’re far less safe. Yet nothing.” I was expecting someone to ask Joe Biden about the 2005 bankruptcy bill, which Elizabeth Warren opposed then and still criticizes.

3. Once again, Biden had no apparent strategy and seemed unprepared for the terrain. Speaking on the campus of a historically black university, he should have anticipated some question about systemic racism or his 1970s record on desegregation. But when the time came, he fell back into his tendency to ramble, with disastrous results.

Biden is fortunate he is so well-known (and generally well-liked) as Barack Obama’s vice president. As Bill Scher commented, his “debate performances would rank him near the bottom” if viewers knew nothing about the candidates, but “he is judged by some more by past performance than present debate performance.”

There is time for Biden to improve before the later debates, which will draw a larger audience. And it’s impossible not to be moved when he discusses his devastating bereavements, as he did in his closing statement.

4. I’ve been expecting Cory Booker to move up in the early state polls, because audiences consistently respond well to his stump speech. He’s now three for three in televised debates. Booker had a number of strong answers and parried the stupid question about his veganism well. I particularly liked his final remarks.

5. Pete Buttigieg can speak smoothly about any topic, and his reflection on his decision to come out, knowing that it could end his political career, was powerful.

This answer was another highlight of the evening:

6. In a large field, going after the front-runner is risky, and I don’t think the gamble paid off for Julian Castro. He made an entirely fair point about how Biden uses a popular former president as a shield:

Every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, [Biden] says, ‘Oh, I was there, I was there, I was there, that’s me too.’ And then every time somebody questions part of the administration that we were both part of, he says, well, that was the president. I mean, he wants to take credit for Obama’s work, but not have to answer to any questions.

But it backfired for Castro to suggest that Biden’s memory is faltering. You can hear it in the way the audience reacted around the 1:20 mark.

Castro said later he “wasn’t taking a shot at his age […] It’s about the health care policy.” But the controversy over whether Castro took a cheap shot overshadowed the point he was making (Biden’s plan would leave 10 million Americans uninsured). As the saying goes, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

7. Kamala Harris didn’t have a standout moment like the first debate, and a couple of her jokes didn’t quite land. On the plus side, she continually turned the conversation back to President Donald Trump, which was effective.

While other candidates argued about Medicare for All versus a public option, Harris reminded the audience that Trump has worked diligently to scrap the entire Affordable Care Act. Harris spoke directly to Trump in her opening statement.

As the first graduate of a historically black university to appear in a presidential debate on an HBCU campus, Harris also addressed the benefits of diversity in education:

8. Amy Klobuchar was short-changed on time and didn’t get as many opportunities to make her electability argument as in the first two debates. But she didn’t need many words to make her case for a public option. Minutes after Bernie Sanders proclaimed, “I wrote the damn bill,” Klobuchar countered, “While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill.” It says on page 8 that there won’t be any private health insurance under a single-payer system. “I don’t think that’s a bold idea, I think it’s a bad idea.”

Women’s issues hardly came up during the three-hour debate, but Klobuchar used her closing remarks to tell a story that will resonate with many women.

9. Beto O’Rourke had even less speaking time than Klobuchar. Nevertheless, he delivered some of the evening’s most memorable lines. Minutes after candidates left the stage, the O’Rourke campaign was already selling t-shirts featuring the sound bite, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.”

10. I struggle to understand Bernie Sanders’ strategy. In three debates, I have yet to hear anything that could extend his appeal beyond current supporters.

When Ramos asked Sanders a hostile question about how his version of socialism differed from “the ones being imposed in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.” Sanders said he supports the kind of governance found in Canada and Scandinavia. Fair enough. But he insists on calling his agenda “democratic socialism.”

Why not advocate for the same popular policies (guaranteed health care, paid family leave, a living wage, and so on) without using a label guaranteed to drive away many people who otherwise share your goals?

Sanders did land a solid hit in response to a question about Iraq. Biden had admitted he should not have voted for what President George W. Bush said he was going to do. Sanders noted he never believed what Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney said about Iraq, adding that he’s the only candidate who opposed all three of Trump’s military budgets.

11. I haven’t heard Elizabeth Warren give a bad answer in three debates, so it was hard to choose a clip for this post. I was impressed by how she explained the gun violence problem is much broader than mass shootings that grab the headlines. She then connected our failure to address that problem with “corruption, pure and simple” in Washington. Congress “is beholden to the gun industry,” and Democrats need to roll back the Senate filibuster.

While Warren makes a strong case for Medicare for All, she didn’t convince me that everyone will happily give up their private insurance.

Many people do like the coverage they receive through their employer. Perhaps some have a false sense of security about their current policy–especially if they haven’t had a serious medical problem. But I think swapping out private insurance for a government-run plan will be a tough sell, especially in the suburban areas that will likely decide the 2020 election.

12. Yet again, Andrew Yang got the least time to speak. But he managed to become the second most tweeted about candidate, probably because of how he answered a question about immigration policy.

Any comments about the presidential campaign are welcome in this thread.

  • Crazy Bernie

    I agree completely! Why does Bernie have to be so honest about his ideology? Why doesn’t he just do what every other politician does and change his message to appeal to different groups of voters! No wonder he got so little support last time running against the underdog Hillary Clinton, she was clearly better at changing her message so that she wouldn’t make people uncomfortable! Look back at the last polling in head to head match up with Trump between Bernie and Hillary, she clearly had way more support because she had so much more integrity.

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