A few things right off the bat:
- Presidential debates are generally more educational than they are persuasive. In other words, they are more effective at helping voters learn more about the candidates and their platforms than they are changing people’s minds about which candidate they support. That said, early primary debates tend to be both educational and persuasive because fewer voters have well-formed opinions about the various candidates. Given that, primary debates are arguably more useful to voters than general election debates.
- The media narrative that emerges in the days following the debates is often more influential on opinions toward the candidates than any specific thing that the candidates say. So I’ll be curious to see how this is spun in the next 24 hours.
- At this point in the game, most people paying attention are those with high levels of political interest and political activists in early primary states, so candidates are framing their arguments as much for the party activists and highly-engaged voters as potential general election voters at this point.
The first twenty minutes or so was a round-robin on assorted policy questions. In one way or another, most of the candidates emphasized something designed to appeal to the working class in rural parts of the country (strengthening unions, manufacturing jobs, green energy jobs, etc.). This suggests to me that an early shared strategy among whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will be focusing on winning back those Obama-Trump voters that proved pivotal in the upper-midwest to winning the Electoral College.
The next section focused on health care plans. Given that none of them will be able to get their plan passed unless Democrats win the Senate and keep the House and eliminate the legislative filibuster (or ram through another health care bill using the Senate reconciliation process like Obama did with the ACA), this question is more useful to show the general governing philosophy of each candidate. Warren and de Blasio both enthusiastically said “sure, let’s eliminate private health care systems and move everyone over to a government plan in 4 years” while others (Klobuchar, Delaney, etc.) focused on the reality that such a goal is very, very, very, very unlikely to happen given the political realities of our current system, and so have less-ambitious-but-more-likely-to-pass incremental proposals. This suggests how they’d approach governing strategies in other pursuing other legislative goals or societal problems.
Nobody had a great answer for what they would do if Republicans keep the Senate in terms of getting their policy platform passed. Warren’s answer that “the fight goes on” means, I’m inferring, mobilizing public opinion to put pressure on Congress to pass her plans. While logical, all recent political history suggests that this is very, very unlikely to be a successful strategy. Delaney and Klobuchar emphasized that they would deal with a Republican Senate by proposing measures that some Republicans might actually support, although due to partisan polarization congressional Republicans will likely oppose whatever a Democratic president proposes. On principle, I support getting rid of the filibuster altogether (regardless of which party is in control of the Senate), which Castro and Booker both seemed to tacitly endorse and Inslee explicitly endorsed.
Did any of them stand out or differentiate themselves? Meh. They all more or less agree on most things and have similar policy proposals on things like income inequality, immigration, climate change, etc. The health care policy contrast was interesting for what it suggested about governing style, same with the questions about the filibuster and getting a legislative agenda passed.
Of the various candidates polling near zero, I didn’t see much in the debate to persuade me to invest more time in: Ryan, de Blasio, Inslee, Gabbard. On the other hand, I didn’t know much about Delaney before the debate and his answers were generally more impressive to me in terms of policy details, pragmatism, clarity, etc. Also, Julián Castro should be getting more support than he currently is: he’s a solid candidate with strong policy credentials and political skills. Otherwise, I thought that Warren, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, and Booker more or less maintained the status quo, but the media narrative that emerges on Thursday may change that.