Sifting Democrats by Debate
Terry H. Schwadron
June 27, 2019
From late-night comedy shows to cable TV political shows, the countdown towards November 2020 has been on, elevating the 20-Democrat “debate” that started last night and continues tonight with a bigger chance for conflict.
Of course, if last night’s experience holds tonight, the joint appearances appeared to be a debate largely in name only, because once they each introduced themselves and looked deeply into the camera, there wasn’t be much time left over for much actual debating. There was, however, plenty of Spin.
Overall, we learned that the others could not really touch Elizabeth Warren, that a few, like Bill de Blasio would jump in whether it was his turn or not, and that the field has been moving more leftward as a group, differing some on the details of policy. Cory Booker and Julian Castro won points for beating expectations, and a few should start considering the exit door.
Still, it is by one-liners, or breaking into Spanish, or a decision to challenge one of the top tier (so far) candidates, that one or another of the candidates may best be remembered will come to be remembered more than how much agreement there is that poverty is bad, that the middle-class needs economic help or that decision-making in the White House.
The need to split the Democrats into two fields of 10 simply makes intelligent sifting more difficult. The way the lineups work, Elizabeth Warren was the leading poll-getting In the first field, and Joe Biden in the second. Of course, Warren was the only top tier candidate in her heat, while Biden clearly will be a lightning rod for ripostes from both his left and right, figuratively and literally. Curiously, of course, that means more air time for the leaders on each night to answer anything the others choose to level at them.
These “debates” are supposed to be a formal introduction of all the characters in the Democratic play — except, of course, the three that did not make the stage because of the rules and their time of entry. But, in the reality of 24/7 cable television’s need to resolve all issues in hour segments, the echoes of whatever is said on either night, along with such important details as errant hair styles, costuming choices and ability to grin and bear criticism, will be used to start cutting the field.
Big donors want winners, not intelligent discussion over policy. That’s what continues to make Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke and some of the others particularly interesting — they like talking policy over winning. By contrast, Biden likes to talk about winning, while carrying an assumed portfolio of expert-aided policies in his kit bag.
My own eye will be out for who can offer some humor. Bill de Blasio is big on sarcasm, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand on the overly sincere, Mayor Pete and O’Rourke on the quick, but sure-footed reminder that they are younger. But it’s not immediately clear who has enough humor to want to have to dinner.
The recent under-the-table kicking of Biden over his weekly gaffes says that everyone not named Biden is trying to get some points on the board as he somehow remains ahead, based on having been vice president for eight years. For the rest of us, these early skirmishes with Biden mostly should indicate that he is human and makes mistakes, and that he has to adjust so as not to appear so out of tune with the language and attitudes of our time.
Actually, for me, the question about Biden is something other than the stuff of his gaffes. No, he is neither a racist nor a misogynist, though he is proving to have a bit of a tin ear for what might sound offensive to the very people and groups whose votes he needs.
But Biden is showing me that he suffers from one disease that he shares with Donald Trump: Biden thinks that Biden is the only one to solve the problems we face. For that reason, he has so far separated himself from some of the messy retail politics that the other double handful of Democrats have been pursuing. For that reason, his campaign handlers have kept him back from too much public exposure, and risk of tripping on the verbal sidewalk. His message repeatedly is that only he in this group can succeed with Republicans in Congress, with voters in Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt states, with confronting Trump personal and professional foibles. Only he has the global contacts to right the foreign policy ship and to restore the alliances that Trump has been squandering. Only he can see the validity of health policy and immigration solution.
That egotism grates. By contrast, Warren is rising in the polls exactly because she is telling us what policies would emerge in her White House years; Bernie has made it a trademark to harp on the half-dozen manifestations of economic revolution that he promotes; Gov. Jay Inslee is showing that climate control is a huge issue that can also serve the multiple purposes of stimulating economy, building new sustainable jobs and make us good global citizens.
Trump’s egotism is out of control, of course. He cannot separate foreign policy from what affects him personally, both in business and in foreign policy likes and dislikes. He is willing to shut the government on a whim whenever he does not get his way. Over and over, Trump is willing to ignore or chuck information and science in pursuit of whatever his gut tells him is Right.
I’m paying more attention to the questions than to the answers. It is critical that the questions take the challenge to each of these candidates, particularly if there is little time for cross-exchanges.
But do savor that most of these people would make a better president than Donald Trump.