My reactions to the June 27, 2019 Democratic presidential debate (night 2 of 2)

Assorted thoughts and reactions, in no particular order or connective theme except loosely in terms of how the topics came up chronologically in the debate:

Good question from the moderators to Hickenlooper: asking him to clarify just what he understands “socialism” to be. In general, the Democratic party has done a poor job of answering charges of “socialism” from Republicans. He missed a good opportunity here. It shouldn’t be hard, but Democrats are gun-shy to argue the semantics of the word “socialism.” Given that it’ll be a key Republican talking point in the 2020 election, I think they should start trying.

So far Gillibrand has struggled to catch much attention or momentum. She used her first time to speak to try out a theme to help her stand out from the rest: saying that she’ll be the compromise candidate between the moderate liberals and liberal liberals. (It reminded me of 2007 when Bill Richardson said something like “Obama represents change, Clinton represents experience. With Bill Richardson, you get both!”) I don’t know that she was able to do much in this debate, though, to get more visibility going into future debates, which is a shame because she’s a sharp and talented senator.

Harris’s rhetorical strategy seems to be to tell stories (both in this debate as well as her stump speeches). All candidates do this, of course, but she’s doing it more effectively and frequently than the other candidates. This is smart. People are more likely to be persuaded by stories about people than data and policy details (as much as I love data and policy details…). Also, good for her for, respectfully but firmly, sharing an example of how she stood up to the Obama administration’s immigration policies on the Secure Communities program. And then BAM that was a gutsy move taking on Biden, respectfully but firmly, on the issue of busing using her own personal story. The other candidates were gun-shy in drawing sharp contrasts with Biden. She took the risk. Up until now she was struggling to get bandwidth between the 300 different candidates but my strong hunch is that now she’s going to own the headlines for the next week. Good for her! 

Buttigieg’s first answer was interesting, emphasizing that “it should be affordable not to go to college.” He later deliberately drew a connection between faith/religion and immigration. He is intentionally deciding not to make coastal secular liberals his primary constituency and to emphasize how he might be appealing to the Obama-Trump voters. Also, he singled out a very important geopolitical issue: China’s authoritarian system and how it’s increasingly gaining in popularity worldwide in comparison with America’s democratic political system that seems so “chaotic” lately (as he put it). Also, when asked about their ONE first issue that they’d do on Day One, his answer matched what I would have said: electoral reform.

In the first half of the debate, Sanders came off to me as even more aggressive and domineering than he did even in the 2016 primary debates against Hillary Clinton. He used his loud voice to wedge himself in and talk over those standing next to him, especially Harris and Gillibrand, several times. I’ll admit: this reminded me of Trump’s style in the 2016 GOP debates against his primary opponents. That said, in the second half he pulled back and his demeanor changed significantly.

I think Biden had a bad night compared to what he was hoping for. He’s leading by a lot in the polls and it’d be easy for him to coast to the nomination, but he didn’t have any strong “break out” moments and didn’t have a great response to Harris’s point about busing. If he weren’t the former vice president, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish him much from any of the other generic moderate Democrats in the race. And I say this as someone who has a lot of respect for him as a former U.S. vice president to Barack Obama for eight years.

This debate format (10 candidates, 2 hours, 45-ish seconds per answer per candidate) is ridiculous and not very useful. I’m glad that the DNC will be tightening up the qualifications for participation in the next round of debates a little bit. This needs to get narrowed down and fast. 

While it’s difficult to have a substantive policy debate with this type of format, it is useful for revealing how candidates perform in a high-stress/high-stakes situation, which gives clues about how they might keep calm under pressure, respond to the “3 AM phone call” with a foreign policy crisis, and maintain a cool head in a highly-stressful environment. Harris, Gillibrand, Biden, and Buttigieg struck me as having a stronger performance on this end. Sanders did not.

Policy questions are great, but this debate format is an ineffective forum to have a productive discussion on policy details AND unless they get a Democratic Senate, none of them are going to be able to get much movement on any of these policies anyways. Better debate questions might be: “tell about a time when you had to make an exceptionally difficult decision” or “what would you be willing to give up in a compromise with Senate Republicans to achieve your key policy goals?” or “how do you deal with stress and anxiety?” or “what values would you prioritize and promote on the global stage as U.S. president?” 

I didn’t see much tonight to justify further consideration of: Williamson, Hickenlooper, Bennet, Swalwell, and Yang. For Hickenlooper and Bennet, it’s a bit of a shame. They’re both smart and talented public servants, but I didn’t see much to justify the “added value” of continuing to have them in the debate.

What do I want to see the candidates talking about? RANKED CHOICE VOTING FOR FEDERAL OFFICES! That one single electoral reform could do more to help reduce polarization and improve the quality of our democratic politics than anything else that anyone is talking about right now. Pete Buttigieg comes closest to talking about it, but because it’s not a sexy issue, no one is putting it high on their list. It’s a state-level issue, but the federal government could certainly incentivize states to adopt ranked choice voting for federal offices by use of grants or other means.

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