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it continues... [part one]

together forever?
so we're back at it with the democratic debates. last night saw cnn take their first crack at presenting ten candidates on one stage after msnbc led the charge last month. a lot of people were critical of the first debate because it seemed there were moments when moderators got such tunnel vision about keeping things moving that they stopped thinking about what was happening on stage. [the prime example being kamala harris having to insist that she be allowed to speak on the issue of racism, being the only person of colour on stage.] the other problem that many identified was that the time given to candidates wasn't even close to equal. i feel like cnn wasn't a lot better with the former, although they avoided any serious gaffes, and that they did an excellent job of fixing the latter. [that said, some of the outlying candidates might be wishing they hadn't had as much time as they did.] as with last time, i'll start off with a few general observations.

how important is length, really? one of the reasons that cnn was able to give candidates more time was that the debate itself was longer. giving everyone more time to talk about policies is important if your goal is to allow the public to make an informed choice and at least we dispensed with those questions where candidates were being asked their plans on complex issues in two words or less. so those are good ideas... in theory. last month, the two msnbc debates were each a tight two hours, whereas last night, things stretched until around ten-thirty. i don't know if i'm alone in this but i felt every damn second of those additional thirty minutes. i like to think i'm engaged but towards the end even i was only half there, more focused on a text conversation about a completely different topic. this brings me back to rachel maddow's comment from last time, that managing a debate with ten people at once was a prescription for failure. i fear she might be right. the democrats need to hope that some candidates drop out before the next round.

mean girls. "hey elizabeth, tim ryan says that you lay really smelly farts when you have pasta for lunch. what do you say to that?" i swear, that's the kind of question i was expecting by the end of the show. yes, there was a lot of policy discussed but the framing of the questions was often juvenile. mentioning one candidate in a question to another automatically triggered the rule that says a candidate has the right of rebuttal if their name is brought up. i realize that that's part of the reason that candidates got more time but the much easier and classier way to approach things would just have been to address questions to two candidates at a time.

so how did everybody do?

did themselves good

bernie sanders :: of the ten who were on last night, gets my vote for the person who learned the most from his mistakes in the first debate. while it helped that sanders had more time in this round, the real key was that he came out of the gate spitting fire. observers might make "crotchety old man" jokes but the fact is that this is the bernie that gets people excited. furthermore, a lot of his ire was directed at chopping away outdated tropes about social programs vs. financial responsibility. no one who went head to head with him came out a winner and a couple of his most pointed barbs are already among the most-replayed moments. in fact, only one person seemed to have a lock on how to keep pace with bernie last night...

elizabeth warren :: a lot of the pregame buzz was about whether the two top progressive candidates, longtime friends and allies, would be forced to turn on each other in order to consolidate the left-wing vote behind them. the short answer: no. the longer answer: could hardly have been further from the truth. rather, the two of them ran the show like a tag team, backing up each other's statements, calling bullshit when centre-right candidates distorted their arguments and more importantly, calling out when the moderators' questions were predicated on republican talking points. an image of the two of them embracing just after the debate circulated widely on twitter and reddit with captions like "this is the ticket" or just "please". personally, i don't think that a presidential ticket of two seventy-something white people from the northeast of the country is a great idea but watching the performances last night, i know that i want both of them involved in the next democratic government.

marianne williamson :: say what? yeah, the one dismissed as the hippie kook brought it to the second debate. unlike the first debate, where she came off as a little unhinged, this time she seemed to be an oddball with some real smarts. when she's on, her answers have a sort of laser clarity that is quite disarming. her real star moment for me came when she upended a question scripted to portray her as a typically entitled white lady; as the only candidate to have not just backed reparations to african americans but to have attached a figure to her promise, she was asked what gave her the right to make this decision without broad consultation. i assume she's been waiting to be asked that question for a while because her response, both in terms of justifying reparations and in terms of how she calculated the total range she proposed. [it's based on extrapolating the promise of "forty acres and a mule".] the answer got the biggest crowd reaction of the night outside of the introductions and google reported that her name was the most searched of any of the candidates over the course of the night. given the past statements and views that those searches are going to turn up, i suspect her golden aura is not long for this world, but she has at the least pretty much locked down a position at the next debate if she chooses to stay in the race.

amy klobouchar :: the sole woman presenting herself as a centrist candidate fared way better than the men last night. she wisely avoided confrontations with sanders and warren, choosing instead to articulate her own policies and once again point out that she wins with trump voters. although visibly nervous at first, she settled in well and made her case in a way that showcases her best qualities: pragmatism, determination, toughness. perhaps most crucially, she presented herself as running for something and not simply as an alternative of left-wing progressive.

came out even

pete buttigieg :: when it comes to the mayor, i almost feel the need to grade his performances on a curve because he's just such a strong speaker. at this point, i feel like the expectations are so high for his performances that he can be as good as he was here and it just seems average. along with sanders and warren, he smartly got in on the message that the party cannot cede the terms of the debate to the republicans, quipping that republicans were going to call them a bunch of socialists no matter what, so they shouldn't even dignify the invoking of the term with a response. although it was clear he was using the trifecta of his youth, military experience and christian faith to gain currency with different voting groups, it's not like those things aren't part of his life. he continues to stand out for his ability to answer questions straight on [e.g., if he would pull u.s. troops from afghanistan], which is a breath of fresh air in the world of politics. he often channels the comfortable ease of "no drama obama" which made his emotional [but never maudlin] answer on gun violence particularly effective.

beto o'rourke :: the good news for beto is that julián castro wasn't on the stage with him last night. the bad news was that pete buttigieg was. along with some unforced errors on o'rourke's part, his candidacy has been hampered by the fact that mayor pete has all the attributes that brought people to beto, but he just seems to handle things better. thus it was last night. o'rourke did fine. the fact that castro wasn't there to take him on meant that he sounded good on questions of immigration. his points were solid on a number of issues. at the end of the show, though, i was left thinking that i'd heard less from him than from any other candidate on the floor and i'm not sure if that's because he actually spoke less or because a lot of what he was saying seemed so very banal. [side note :: it would have to be the latter because, while o'rourke spoke less than he did in the first debate, he was right in the middle of the pack in terms of minutes allocated in the second.]

steve bullock :: a popular democratic governor from montana? bullock squeezed onto the stage courtesy of eric swalwell's exit and i was interested to see what he brought to the table. the answer was a lot of volume. i suspect that reactions to his performance will split based on whether or not people perceived his aggressiveness as strong or belligerent. i heard people voicing both opinions afterward. he was the only candidate from the party's right-wing smart enough to present his liberal bona fides up front: pro-choice, pro-healthcare, union-friendly. if a centrist candidate is going to carry the day, they're going to need to address the concerns of progressives. that said, if a centrist is going to carry the day, it's not going to be him.

did themselves harm

john delaney :: at times, it seemed like delaney's sole purpose was to serve as elizabeth warren's punching bag. then he'd take a punch from sanders. a proud centrist and critic of things like universal medicare, delaney has now shown us twice that he's probably the least equipped of the field to carry that banner forward. he's the flipside of beto o'rourke, in that i felt like i heard a hell of a lot from him last night and i didn't like any of it. in particular, he fell back on his discredited claim from the first debate that thousands of hospitals would close under a universal healthcare plan, and got rightly dismantled for it.

tim ryan :: second only to delaney in terms of shots taken for team centrist. just as he gifted tulsi gabbard a lifeline with a boneheaded response on al qaeda in the first debate, he stuck his foot in it by telling bernie sanders that he didn't understand a piece of legislation that sanders himself had authored. the sole bright spot for him is that it's sanders' response ["i wrote the damn legislation"] that will be remembered and not who he was talking to. well, that and the fact that delaney got more time to look bad than he did.

john hickenlooper :: remember what i said a few paragraphs back about grading pete buttigieg on a curve? i feel like i'm doing the same thing with hickenlooper. i went back and forth on whether he belonged in this category or the one previous because he wasn't terrible but when i look at his impressive record as colorado governor, i feel like he should come off as a hell of a lot stronger than he was here. instead, he tends to appear shallow, hung up on republicans using the term "socialist" to describe the democratic party and weirdly vague about actual policies despite having a history of implementing them. ultimately, his only memorable moment in the debate was an exchange with sanders that resulted in both of them throwing their arms in the air. other than that, people just didn't care.

the big takeaway from last night for me was that the party's progressive wing took every round against the centrists. that's not entirely surprising when you look at who was representing both "sides" [it's really more of a spectrum]. the centrist heavyweights- biden, harris and booker- will be taking the stage tonight. but i wouldn't expect part two to be about policy to the extent of last night's. once again pitting joe biden against kamala harris and adding cory booker to the mix is seen as a recipe for fireworks. [side note :: that may in itself be faint damnation: why should policy dominate only when progressives are on stage? why shouldn't the others have the same dedication to talking about how they would govern?]

ultimately, though, this field has got to get a lot thinner before people start to be able to make their final choice. 


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