The pros and cons of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential candidacy: a reassessment

47699370372_e2762f46cf_k

[ Photo credit Greg Skidmore]

 

TL;DR – I have been somewhat cautious about Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in the past because of some of her positions and political rhetoric, so I did my homework. After doing my homework, I think my caution was mostly misplaced. I do, however, continue to have differences with her diagnosis of the cause of America’s major political and economic problems and I disagree with her use of populist rhetoric in her campaigning and political style. That said, she is a talented, smart, and passionate public servant whom I would gladly support against Donald Trump should she win the 2020 Democratic nomination.

 

While much can change between now and the Iowa Caucuses next January, as of right now Elizabeth Warren has roughly as good a shot as Joe Biden of winning the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. I will admit that I have eyed Warren’s candidacy with some degree of caution, as her rhetorical style a fair amount of anti-elite economic populism, and I am wary of populism and populists, especially given the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

That said, populism (a political style that pits a good, virtuous people against an immoral elite of some kind) is not a binary: politicians can run the scale from exhibiting a small amount of populism here and there all the way all the way to a Stalinist “elites are the enemy of the people”-type populism. Given Warren’s reasonable chance of becoming the 2020 nominee, I recently made an effort to give Warren’s candidacy a fair shake and as much of an objective assessment as I could, reading two biographies of Warren and listening to several hours of one-on-one podcast interviews with her. This is what I learned.

 

THE COMPELLING CASE FOR WARREN:

Elizabeth Warren’s life story is impressive. She went to law school at a time when it was hard to do that as a woman and she did it while raising small kids. Her academic career and research led her to study bankruptcy, thinking it would confirm her early-life worldview that those who declare bankruptcy are morally lacking and mooching off the system. Instead, she found that the data and evidence showed very much the opposite, and she changed her political and societal views accordingly. This is an important cognitive skill that we all could use more of in our lives and especially could use more of from our political leaders.

Then, she spent much of her political career looking to put her research knowledge to use by working to address what she perceived to be the causes of the systems that led to those bankruptcies in society, as well as economic inequality more broadly.

Example: her proposal to give corporate employees control over 40% of the seats on the boards of directors that govern the institutions they work for (“codetermination”) is a cool idea. Research shows that countries that adopt some form of this type of corporate governance tend to also have higher wages for workers and lower levels of economic inequality in their societies.

Elizabeth Warren is smart, talented, and a workhorse. She’s a badass who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She knows what it’s like to be working parent of small kids. She was a talented and distinguished law professor. Her presidency would serve as an excellent and empowering model to young women and girls both in the U.S. and around the world. She would represent America honorably on the world stage and use her platform to address the very real and important issues of economic inequality and wage stagnation for the middle class.

 

MY DISAGREEMENTS WITH WARREN:

The causes of economic inequality

Warren’s explanation of the current state of economic inequality in the U.S. goes something like this: at key moments when government policies have been made that affect levels of economic opportunity and inequality, elected officials chose to enact policies that favor the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless because they had been “bought” by campaign donations from powerful interest groups, lobbyists, and special interests. The solution, as she sees it, is to “stand up” to the influence and power of the special interests, thereby freeing policy-makers to pursue policies that benefit the majority.

As best as I can make sense of the research on the causes and consequences of economic inequality in contemporary American society and its relationship to the political process, Elizabeth Warren’s explanation is partially, but likely not entirely (or even mostly) correct. Instead, wider structural factors over the last half-century including globalization, industrial automation, and to a smaller extent technological innovation are among primary culprits for widening levels of economic inequality in American society.

These trends have of course been exacerbated by deliberate policy choices that have weakened labor unions and restructured tax codes in ways more favorable to those with higher income levels, but it’s not at all a foregone conclusion that economic inequality would not have grown over the last several decades in the absence of the influence of lobbyists and interest groups. We’d still have the wider forces of globalization, automation, and technological innovation at work.

If a President Warren is going to be effective at addressing economic inequality, her policy prescriptions will need to address much more than simply limiting the influence of lobbyists and the wealthy donor class on public policy.

Political change and the influence of lobbyists

This same explanation accounts for Warren’s theory of political change. For example, in a recent NPR interview, Warren was asked why meaningful gun control legislation has not been passed in recent years despite overwhelming public support for such measures. Her answer was that the NRA has bought off members of Congress with its campaign donations, and thus members of Congress listen to the NRA above their own voters who want these policies.

My best explanation would go something more like this: members of Congress of course pay attention to donors, but the best political science research tends to show that money can indeed by access to and attention from lawmakers, but not necessarily votes. Instead, most members of Congress (who are from safe electorally lopsided districts) pay most attention to the vocal members of their partisan primary constituencies because they are most worried about being primaried out by a more ideologically extreme/pure challenger. Republican primary voters care about gun rights. And it’s not because they’re bought off by the NRA, but because they believe strongly in an expansive interpretation of the 2nd amendment. These people show up to vote in primary elections and they care about gun rights, and so members of Congress from red states and districts tend to vote against restrictions on owning, buying, selling, and operating guns because voters who feel the same way control their electoral fates.

Take the NRA out of the equation entirely, and you’d still very likely have massive pressure from partisan constituencies who care strongly about this issue. Having a president who “stands up to the NRA” (as she promises to do) likely wouldn’t move the needle much in terms of congressional incentives to support gun control legislation.

Democratic norms and the legislative process

Recognizing these electoral and institutional constraints, Elizabeth Warren is now advocating for the elimination of the Senate filibuster so as to be able to pass all legislation with a simple majority.

On this point, I agree with her. (I say this someone who, as part of a U.S. Senate simulation as an undergraduate, argued passionately in favor of the sacred rights of senators to filibuster. I changed my mind somewhere around 2014.) I support the elimination of the filibuster so as to enable majorities to govern and to increase accountability on the majority party to govern effectively (they can’t blame a Senate minority for poor governance if the minority can no longer block the majority from enacting its program). I support the elimination of the filibuster going forward, regardless of whether “my side” is in control or not.

When you hear Elizabeth Warren advocate for abolishing the filibuster, though, you hear a different rationale: “This business that Democrats play by one set of rules and Republicans play by a different set of rules — those days are over when I’m president. We’re not doing that anymore.” What she means is that under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans have tended to put the exercise of political power ahead of respect for the norms of democratic governance that hold a liberal democracy together.

On this point, I still agree with her: McConnell’s complete lack of regard for democratic norms of reciprocity and fair play are egregious and shameful. Where I disagree is on how to respond. She’s saying “if they’re going to play dirty, than so are we.” I worry that this will continue to hasten the arms race of political power, continuing to raise the stakes of the outcome of each election which will further incentivize abandoning democratic norms in favor of securing political power (example: Merrick Garland). This is not a recipe to ensure the long-term health or stability of our political system.

The use of populist rhetoric

When Elizabeth Warren talks about lobbyists, special interests, and the donor class, she says over and over again that they’re “corrupt.” I’ll admit that I’m wary of the use of this word, because in an international political context “corruption” usually refers to politicians or other authority figures taking cash bribes in exchange for granting political favors. It is true, though, that “corrupt” can also simply mean “unfair” or “distorted” which is what I think she means: that the system unfairly benefits the wealthy at the expense of the middle- and lower-class. When she accuses politicians and interest groups of being “corrupt,” though, it’s not unreasonable for listeners to infer an accusation of lawbreaking and other illegal activity.

This matters because it’s a common strategy for populists. Example: Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he lost the popular vote in 2016 only because millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton or that the electoral system is “rigged” against him (something Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common). Accusing lobbyists of “corruption” (whether you agree with their positions or not) for exercising their first amendment rights to freedom of speech and association is, to me, a gesture in the same direction (although not near as egregious) as when Donald Trump says that the news media is a purveyor of “fake news” and therefore is “the enemy of the people.”

This rhetorical populism also targets other Americans. At her town hall meetings, Warren often focuses her rhetoric on the wealthy and super-rich, accusing them of selfishly hoarding their wealth at the expense of the less fortunate. She talks derisively about the people with vacation homes and yachts and says that she’s going to pay for her expansion of welfare state programs (universal child care and health insurance, etc.) by enacting a “wealth tax” on the net worth of the wealthiest vacation home and yacht owners.

Now, I want to be clear that support proportionately higher levels of taxes on those more fortunate to support the provision of services like education and healthcare to those less fortunate in an effort to broaden opportunity and prosperity for all. This can be done, though, in ways that do not rhetorically demonize those who are being taxed at higher rates.

When Elizabeth Warren casts rhetorical dispersions on the wealthy, making them out to be antagonists against the good, virtuous middle- and lower-classes, this is populism. Rhetorically, it’s the same political style that Donald Trump uses (although again, not near as egregious) when he makes straight-up racist comments against immigrants and Muslims, making them out to be the enemy of the good, virtuous white, Christians. When populist leaders are able to convince a majority of the people that another group of people are corrupt or threatening, they are more easily able to infringe upon the rights of those minority groups (whether the wealthy or the immigrants or the Muslims, etc.) to boost their popularity among the masses.

 

WARREN’S CANDIDACY IN PERSPECTIVE:

I tend disagree with Elizabeth Warren about the causes of economic inequality in U.S. society and as well as her view of the effect of lobbyists on the American political system and political change. Those are honest differences of opinion, though, and I fully appreciate Warren’s efforts to apply her understanding of the world to make meaningful change, as I hope we would all do.

I am wary of Elizabeth Warren’s comfort with “fighting fire with fire” when it comes to responding to recent Republican efforts to weaken democratic norms and institutions in the pursuit of policy outcomes. I am wary of the populist notes she inserts into her stump speeches. I understand and sympathize with much of the motivation, but I do not support such political styles and strategies becoming the “new normal” in the United States, as neither is conducive maintaining a strong and vibrant liberal democracy.

As I said at the outset, though, these characteristics do not exist in a binary but rather in matters of degree. In my estimation, if we were to put someone like Vice President Biden on one end of the spectrum around a 1 and President Trump on the other end of the spectrum around a 10 in terms of populism and disrespect for democratic norms and institutions, I’d put someone like Elizabeth Warren around a 3-ish. She’s not actively trying to sow doubt in the institutions of the news media, the judiciary, NATO (as Donald Trump has done), or even capitalist democracy (she goes to great length to assure us that “I’m a capitalist to my bones” and her record supports this). She’s not actively calling for a ban on travel of all wealthy people to the United States (like Trump did with Muslims, and tried very hard to follow through on, achieving some degree of success with his travel ban).

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, I’d rank around a 6 or a 7. He’s actively disparaging the “1%” and the “billionaire class.” He’s taken to criticizing the free news media. He calls for a “revolution” of the people substantially reform the political and economic institutions of the United States. He is a populist through and through. Elizabeth Warren is nowhere near as far along this spectrum as Bernie Sanders, who I am on record of actively opposing for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Therefore, if the primary election were held today, Elizabeth Warren would perhaps not be my first choice for the reasons outlined above. That said, should she win the nomination for president in 2020, I will gladly support her candidacy. She has not “crossed the line” of populism or the delegitimization of our political institutions the same way that Trump or Sanders have. The risk to democratic norms and institutions from a President Elizabeth Warren is low, and much, much lower than from a President Bernie Sanders or a re-elected President Donald Trump. And the potential for her to enact meaningful change in American public policy about the issues she cares about is pretty good (assuming, of course, that the Democrats win the Senate – odds are currently low – and the Senate nukes the filibuster. If not…?)

 

 

Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 2

Two months ago I published my first 2020 Democratic candidate rankings. Not a whole lot has changed in the primary race since then, so neither have my preference rankings. Nonetheless, here is my update.

A reminder that my personal preferences lead me to prioritize candidates who: 1) have strong foreign policy expertise/experience and recognize global democratic backsliding as one of the most alarming international trends of the current moment, 2) display a nuanced approached to analyzing complex issues, 3) eschew populism, both right-wing nationalist/racial populism and left-wing economic populism, 4) have previous electoral experience and a background that helps understand the life experiences of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 5) have a realistic “plan of action” for enacting a policy agenda that takes into account the reality that they have to pass stuff through Congress, which is hard. (More detail on each of these is available in my earlier post.)

I’ll add as well that the current Democratic activist electorate seems to generally fall into one of two camps: 1) those who see economic inequality and the influence of lobbyists and “special interests” as the key barrier to enacting a meaningful legislative agenda and 2) those who see political polarization and electoral/institutional constraints as the key barrier to enacting a meaningful legislative agenda.

While I am persuaded that both of these matter, my academic training and experience has strongly persuaded me that political polarization and institutional constraints account for far more of the legislative paralysis and political dysfunction that we see in the federal government today than the influence of “corrupt special interests” on lawmakers. Fixing political polarization and institutions that distort democratic outcomes will enable the government to better address economic inequality (which is, to some extent, policy-solvable), while the reverse is less true.

In these rankings I am also limiting my candidates to those who have qualified for the second debate (with a polling average of at least 2% and a broad donor base). I’ll also pretend that I get to use ranked-choice voting, and show how they’ve moved since last time.

For most of these candidates, the rationales for my rankings remain the same, so please refer to the earlier post for more context and explanation of the pros/cons of each (from my perspective). I added a few notes based on things that have happened over the last few months.

 

1. Kamala Harris

  • While her first debate attack on Joe Biden was perhaps not entirely fair on the substance, it suggested to me that she’s smart and strategic, willing to make gutsy decisions when needed. She’s playing “go big or go home.”

2. Pete Buttigieg (↑ 1)

  • He is the only one consistently talking about institutional and electoral institutions. This suggests to me that he has the best lens to diagnose problems in American society and what tool would be the best to try to address them. It’s not an exciting topic, but it’s the most important one. See Ezra Klein’s write-up on this topic here. He’s also someone who is doing an effective job of speaking about what it’s like to live in the U.S. as someone from a marginalized group but also does a good job of speak to white working-class voters in a way that validates their life experience as well. This is an important skill for U.S. presidents.

3. Cory Booker (↓ 1)

4. Amy Klobuchar

5. Joe Biden

  • He is the only one I hear consistently discussing how President Trump’s rhetoric weakens democratic institutions and norms and emboldens dictators around the world to weaken their own democratic institutions and abuse human rights. Every candidate should be talking about this all the time.

6. Elizabeth Warren

  • I would rank her higher, but her diagnosis of the problems of American society (corrupt special interests) simply doesn’t match up with what I understand to be the more powerful barriers toward meaningful policy enactment (see above).

7. Andrew Yang (new!)

8. Beto O’Rourke (↓ 1)

9. Bernie Sanders (↓ 2)

 


 

That all said, the only person I’d hesitate before enthusiastically endorsing for the 2020 Democratic nomination would be Bernie Sanders. I am extremely wary of the Democratic party going down the path of tepidly-illiberal economic populism to try to beat Donald Trump’s enthusiastically-illiberal nationalist/racial populism. A Sanders-Trump match-up in 2020 for the U.S. Presidency signals to the world that populism has won.

 

 

 

My reactions to the July 31, 2019 Democratic primary debates (night 2 of 2)

I blogged yesterday about how most of the candidates promised the moon without a realistic plan to enact their proposals given the existence of Congress, the likelihood that Republicans will keep the Senate, and the existence of the filibuster. Many of the candidates (except Jay Inslee notably) did the same thing tonight, so I’ll refer you to that.

Instead, I tried to use tonight to watch for what we can learn from how the candidates answer the questions. What do the candidates reveal about how they perform under pressure, how they frame policy to elicit support from different constituencies, and their thinking styles (complex/nuanced vs. simple/binary), all of which are important governing skills, from how they answer questions about political policy.

On the whole, some of my various thoughts were:

  • In general, Joe Biden kept his cool and didn’t get flustered in the face of frequent frontal attacks from other candidates. He’s had a lifetime of practicing political exchanges and debates, and I think it came through tonight. He did a good job criticizing people’s records while treating them civilly as human beings. And he was more subdued than I would have expected. It makes me wonder how he’d debate Donald Trump if he gets the nomination and frame his campaign messaging to appeal to the Obama-Trump voters that he’d try to win back.
  • Kamala Harris had some strong moments and weaker moments. She got flustered and nervous when talking about health care, but she was confident and strong when talking about civil rights and criminal justice, as would be expected given her previous experience and policy expertise.
  • Julian Castro is smart and his answers suggest (to me, at least) an evidence-based, nuanced approach to politics and governing. His Latin America Marshall Plan is brilliant and his housing plan is admirable. His comments on the political ramifications of beginning impeachment hearings against Trump were spot on. It’s a shame he’s not getting more attention.
  • Cory Booker did about as well as I expected. He has strong answers to some questions and is a bit undisciplined on others. I don’t know that he’ll have much movement as a result of this debate.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, and (to my surprise, I’ll admit) Tulsi Gabbard all did perfectly well, but I don’t know that any of them did anything that will help them be on the debate stage in September when the requirements are tightened up a bit.

On the whole, the candidates on the stage tonight were, on average, stronger than those on the stage yesterday (with the exception maybe of Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren). I agree with this take by Jennifer Victor:

 

Also, check out these informal candidate placement schemas by some of the writers at FiveThirtyEight that graph the various candidates along a left-vs-right ideological spectrum and an establishment-vs-insurgent/outsider spectrum:

My reactions to the July 30, 2019 Democratic primary debates (night 1 of 2)

In no particular order, except perhaps chronological:

  • The opening statements were interesting but not as useful as I was hoping for.
  • The first half hour or so of the debate had candidates debating the nuances of their health care plans. It’s important to keep in mind that unless Democrats keep the House (likely-ish) and win back the Senate (which is less likely), there’s no way they’re getting any major legislation passed. Given that, their answers are more useful to helping us discern their personalities, governing styles, thinking processes, etc. Where the candidate falls on the private vs. public healthcare policy preference spectrum may not be a good indicator of what will likely become law when they win, but is more useful to inferring what their theory of political change is and what they view to be the problems/solutions in the political system.
  • This was repeated on a number of issues: immigration, gun control, climate change, infrastructure, etc. etc. Candidate after candidate said over and over again “as president I will ensure that…” as if the need for bicameral Congressional approval wasn’t a thing. Don’t get me wrong: it’s good to hear their policy positions and I’m glad they have priorities and desires. BUT the odds of them passing any of these ambitions plans is slim to none unless Democrats win the Senate and nuke the filibuster. Then if they do that, though, they’ll likely lose Congress in the 2022 midterms because historically midterms are negative referendums on the incumbent president’s party.
  • Foreign policy was not addressed until more than two hours into the debate. This is a shame, given that presidents have much, much more leeway in foreign affairs than they do in domestic lawmaking. In my view, the increasing popularity of nationalist populism in democracies around the globe, democratic backsliding, and “illiberal democracy” is one of the single most alarming political trends of the last decade. I want to hear the candidates explain their thoughts on this issue: what has caused it and what can be done about it?
  • Bernie Sanders regularly uses populist rhetoric, similar to that of Trump, in framing his policy proposals. Bernie makes an enemy out of the 1% and “special interests” while Trump makes an enemy out of immigrants and a free press. Populism is not always associated with illiberal democracy and soft authoritarianism, but if often is. I hope, hope, hope that Democrats resist the urge to fight nationalist populism with quasi-illiberal economic populism. For her part, Elizabeth Warren didn’t go near as far as Bernie Sanders, but she regularly says that companies seeking to maximize their profits is “corruption.” I think it’d be more responsible to say “unfair” rather than “corrupt” as the latter implies “illegal” and that flirts with illiberalism, although not quite as strongly as does “enemy of the people” from Pres. Trump.
  • Congressman John Delaney likely won’t be in the next debates, but he played an important role in today’s debate: being the primary foil to Sanders/Warren’s economic populist proposals and idealist-yet-unrealistic proposals.
  • I’m glad that the requirements for the next debate will be tightened up a bit. Trying to get 10 different candidates to be able to discuss important issues to any degree of useful detail in under two hours is nearly impossible.
  • I didn’t really see anything that I think will shake up the race in a fundamental way in this debate. I’ll be surprised if polling numbers for any of these candidates budges much.
  • That said, these debates are useful in campaigns because they’re educational. They help voters think about issues and deliberate on their political preferences and opinions. That’s a good thing!
  • If you’re on Twitter, I also often live-tweet debates: @benjaminknoll28

Gen Z in the college classroom: how to best understand and teach the new generation of students?

I recently finished two books that offer some early evidence of the values and habits of the GenZ generation, those born in the late 1990s through the early 2010s. They are starting to enter college and for the first time my students will be of a different generation label than me. (Yes, it finally happened.)

These books are:

Some of the key take-aways about the Gen Zers from these two books include:

  • Coming of age during the global financial crisis of the late 2000s has often led them to be hyper-anxious about their future economic stability and security. “Getting a job” is the primary (if not exclusive) reason that most of them go to college.
    • “Happiness” tends to be equated with financial security and economic independence. That is the primary goal that they’re anxious and highly motivated to achieve before they reach 30.
    • They want practical, applicable knowledge and skills for job competitiveness.
    • The perceived need for college credentials has led to the accumulation of massive amounts of student debt, seeing it as a necessary step toward economic stability and self-sufficiency through a college degree, but has also been accompanied by widespread anxiety about the ability to ever pay the loans off.
    • Given these uncertainties, there is a general craving for predictability and order in an uncertain world. They are less likely to take risks than previous generations (fewer rates of drug use, teenage pregnancy, etc.) while simultaneously experiencing more anxiety about the future.
  • Digital natives — most have never known life without a smartphone. They are often constantly on their devices.
    • This has pros: easy and instant access to a world of information, being able to form social groups and find opportunities online, often becoming knowledge “specialists” rather than generalists.
    • It also has its cons: shorter attention spans, hyper-vigilance about online profiles, more difficult to foster interpersonal interaction skills, etc. It tends to produce rates of anxiety and depression at higher rates than previous generations.
  • Diversity is a given and to be celebrated, not a reality to be tolerated. About half identify as non-white.
    • Identity, including gender and sexuality, is considered fluid and self-determined.
    • To GenZers, the worst thing you can do is offend someone or make them think that you’re judging their self-selected values or identities.
  • Texting/instant messaging is the default communication method. Email is what adults do. Facebook is what they use to connect with older family and friends, but Twitter and Instagram are used to connect to peers.
  • They perceive effective leaders as those who can facilitate collective action and decision making to accomplish shared objectives, complex thinking, adaptability, interdependence. They want honesty and transparency in leadership instead of paternalistic information-shielding.
    • They do not tend to admire their bosses, religious leaders, celebrities, or political leaders.
  • They have grown up in a world where major institutions (economic, religious, political) have not produced many good results and have hurt the world in many ways, and so are skeptical of the virtue and effectiveness of institutions.

 

After reading these books, I am still ruminating on a series of questions regarding my vocation as a college professor:

  1. The culture of liberal arts colleges (and much of higher education in general) is to push back against the idea that a college education is merely an instrumental means to the ultimate goal of career preparation and economic security. We often explicitly remind students that becoming a well-educated person has its own intrinsic value as a step toward self-actualization and intellectual freedom, separate from whatever economic advantage it may give someone. But this research seems to indicate that economic security and “getting a job” is the top motivating concern and source of anxiety for the Gen Z generation. How should this inform the culture and values of our classrooms, syllabi, and institutions? Should it?
  2. To what extent is it the job of a college education to promote healthy technology skills and values? Should we be actively reminding students about how too much reliance on social media is associated with anxiety and depression? Should we be intentionally fostering healthier technology habits…? Or is that the job of some other institution (or at all)?
  3. How might we balance the very admirable values of inclusivity, mutual respect, and compassion that characterize the Gen Z generation with the need to teach and practice skills of argument, debate, and civil disagreement that are vital to democratic citizenship?
  4. Should college professors take the reality of shorter attention spans as a given and actively create lesson plans accordingly? Or should professors work to help students foster longer attention spans by designing lesson plans that require sustained focus for long periods of time?
  5. How should colleges and professors respond to increasing levels of anxiety and depression among Gen Z students that seem to be strongly related to cell phone use and social media? To what extent should our lesson plans and group discussion formats be designed to minimize student anxiety? Is anxiety management within the purview of college instructors? We often say that learning most often occurs when students get “outside their comfort zone.” How might this be effectively accomplished in a way that does not increase already-higher-than-average levels of anxiety and depression?

Discuss.

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.

My reactions to the June 26, 2019 Democratic presidential debate (night 1 of 2)

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.