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imperfect ten

who here would make a better president than donald trump?
whatever you've heard about the democratic contenders' debate that happened thursday, i would hereby like to tell you to ignore it and, if you have the time, go and watch as much of it as you can [stand]. the biggest story coming out of the debate should really be the appalling talking points that the mainstream media have latched onto, especially the ten-second battle between julian castro and joe biden over healthcare. that literally might have been the least consequential thing that happened all night and i'm including the ad breaks.

ten candidates is still too many a lot but this is the first time that we've had the heaviest hitters all hitting each other. at the same time, they also took somewhat stronger shots at donald trump than they had before [some more than others]. the debate was a full three hours but, unlike the cnn debates where i spent the last half hour or so throwing money at my television in a desperate bid to bribe the moderators to wrap it up quickly, this one held my attention for the duration. i feel like the credit for this goes to the organizers and the moderators [more on that in a moment]. it also makes me retroactively more critical of the teams behind the first two debates, although i still maintain that criticism of them was overblown.

in the midst of watching and tweeting and talking to people about what was being said, i didn't end up taking notes. i figured that my notes had just been a little boost and that i'd remember everything that needed to be said but... you can see where this is going. so my commentary isn't quite as detailed as i like it to be. the greatest impression left on me was that with all the strongest performers on stage, they battled to a draw. the mainstream media has zeroed in on the castro insult as a disaster and others have pointed to an underreported response from biden but it's difficult to argue that anyone was seriously off their game throughout. on the other hand, this likely means that even the slight fluctuations we saw in the wake of the first two debates won't materialize after this one.

i'll get to the candidates in a minute but as has become my custom, here are a few general observations:


  • the a-team :: a round of applause to the abc moderation team, in particular, linsey davis and jorge ramos. the questions in this debate were much more substantive and they generally avoided the detestable habit of trying to pit one candidate against another in order to ginn up arguments. although they did shut down candidates who used more than their allotted time, they seemed less disruptive about doing so. it wasn't perfect, of course, but it was a noticeable improvement. it would be shocking if ramos didn't make appearances in future debates but please make sure that davis does as well, dnc.
  • down in flames :: i can't even imagine how abc greenlit an ad that featured the image of alexandria ocasio cortez being set on fire. it would be gross at the best of times but when you have open death threats being levelled against women like her and ilhan omar, it is also grossly irresponsible. the ad didn't actually air in canada so imagine my confusion when, as i was thinking about how much better the debate was this time around, i saw #boycottabc trending on twitter. but now that i know, those tweeters had a point. hey, abc, if you're going to open your airwaves to this sort of thing, i expect to hear you give kathy griffin a huge apology for being part of the backlash against her when she posed for a photo with a fake severed trump head.
  • barks and bites :: we all know that the 24-hour news world has made news shallower rather than more comprehensive and that the sound bite rules the roost more than ever. [seriously, there are more substantive things being written in twitter threads than are appearing on a lot of cable news outlets.] but the aftermath of this debate has made one thing clear: the media make no distinction between sound bites that express something profound or informative in a concise way and those that are what i call "sound barks", that are just about the noise being made and have no weight but are designed to make the news cycle. beto o'rourke saying that he's coming for your ar-15s and ak-47s is a key moment; kamala harris telling the president to go back to watching fox news is not. both statements are perfectly acceptable in a debate but that doesn't mean they deserve to be repeated on a loop.


now this next part is tricky. as i said before, i don't think any candidate made any major headway and i find that the media coverage has really missed the mark on this one. that said, media coverage often has as much or more to do with the reactions of the wider public, so i've tried to at least accommodate that into my comments.

did themselves good

beto o'rourke :: now this is the guy that had people all excited in texas last year. although he spoke less than anyone except for andrew yang, he made the most of every second. beto originally emerged as a popular figure by taking on the nra and political obsequiousness to them, so it's no surprise that he owned the topic on the night. he still strikes me as a bit of a lightweight when it comes to policy overall but you definitely got a better sense of why he inspired people in his home state. this is one where the media and i seem to be in agreement. is he going to win? no. but he makes a strong case that he should be in the conversation for the future. although he's ruled out running for the other texas senate seat [damn him] i wouldn't be entirely surprised to see him take a crack at the governorship when it comes up. more presidents have been former governors than former senators.

elizabeth warren :: i've said it before and i'll say it again: this woman is the embodiment of the expression "slow and steady wins the race". although a lot of people [men] find her tone a little too school-teacher-y, i think there are a lot of people who appreciate that she sounds calm. we need calm. it's not an accident that biden was more focused on her than on bernie sanders, even though it's sanders who's closest to him in polls. her biggest accomplishment on the night may be that she was better able to articulate her policies than sanders, without ever having to take him on directly. the media are finally coming around to the idea some of us noticed a while ago: she is running a perfect campaign and isn't getting too bothered about what anyone else is doing.

cory booker :: struck a good balance between sharp and compassionate. no one in the race speaks as sensitively about the experience of urban america and america has an increasingly urban population. [the whole world does, actually, which is a problem but not one there's room to discuss right now.] although he's clearly a centrist candidate, his centrism isn't that of a biden or a klobouchar, who are more focused on the heartland. i find that he relies too heavily on his charm and not enough on his policies but that may be enough to keep him in the race for longer than his current polling would have one believe. he's the best at condensing what needs to be said into sound bite form [although he's also guilty of frequent "sound barks"] and that means that when he does well, the media responds.

came out even

amy klobouchar :: on the bubble between holding her own and doing herself some good, i just didn't feel the candidate most proud of being a moderate made enough of an impression to get a major boost and at this point, she really needs one. she's polling low in iowa and that is the exact sort of place where she should be doing her best. she landed literally the only palpable hit against bernie sanders by calling out issues that existed with his own healthcare bill. whether you think these are legitimate issues depends more on where you already stand on healthcare than on the candidates themselves but sanders has been nearly bulletproof to date. the thing working against her is that she doesn't get that declaring oneself a "moderate" now sounds a bit old-fashioned. harris, buttigieg and booker are all moderates but they appear to be fresher and more exciting because they don't push the idea that they're part of a continuum that's existed for ages. the voters who like hearing that someone is a moderate are older and are going to gravitate to biden.

pete buttigieg :: this may sound repetitive but i feel like i have to grade the mayor on a curve. far and away the most articulate speaker on the stage whenever he's appeared and rivalling warren for the title of smartest person in the room, he rarely makes a misstep. i did feel that he made one tonight when he came way too close to embracing the status quo on healthcare. he had a strong moment that has gotten media play [more than it really deserves] when he reined in his fellow candidates, tutting them for arguing too much among themselves. media pundits have stressed the importance of candidates defining themselves relative to one another but when everyone is shouting at once, that's not helping define anything. the youngest candidate on the stage continues to look like an adult in the room.

bernie sanders :: all the vermont senator ever has to do at these debates is deliver a solid, unexceptional performance and he'll be just fine. he's not the strongest debater, especially in a field with so many other candidates, where he has to spit out his thoughts in short blurbs. bernie is at his best when he's either giving longer-form speeches or distilling them into easy-to-remember catchphrases. doing a minute or two at a time hides both his intelligence and his humour. that said, his supporters know at this point that this isn't where he shines and he can generally get enough of his views across to keep interest and curiosity at a healthy level. and that's good because that's all he's getting out of these debates. mainstream media coverage of him is virtually non-existent. after the debate, msnbc treated audiences to a breakdown of polling numbers for joe biden and elizabeth warren, despite the fact that it's sanders, not warren, who's polling second and has been for the entire time that all three candidates have been in the race. that's not just obnoxious, it's manipulative and it's dangerous. it is literally fake news by omission. the mainstream media hate candidates who break their comfortable moulds; they did the same thing with ron paul in 2012. acting like such candidates don't exist, however, reinforces the feeling among their supporters that everyone is lined up against them. that's a disgusting sentiment for a media outlet to push.

kamala harris :: i found myself of two minds about senator harris on thursday. she is very much at ease in a debate. she comes in looking prepared and poised and is extremely sharp at picking apart her opponents when their arguments don't pass muster. she must have been terrifying in a courtroom. i feel like no one has done a better job of convincing me that she could take down trump in a debate or on the campaign trail, even though other people are perceived as more electable. on the other hand, she seemed hamstrung by some of the tougher questions she got. her attempt at explaining why she rejects sanders' healthcare bill when she previously co-sponsored it and her answer about the contradictions between her current position on criminal justice reform and her actions as a prosecutor and attorney general were weak. she sounded like the sort of vacillating politician who changes policies depending on the audience, which is exactly the thing that people have come to loathe. she had several lines that were catchy but contrived and it remains to be seen how most people perceived them. [i lean towards contrived.] so which kamala harris ruled the night? well, she benefits from the fact that both of her worst moments don't fit easily into sound bites, so they aren't likely to get a lot of attention or repeat plays from the media. that said, she did nothing to ease the concerns of black and latinx voters, for whom her record as a prosecutor is a major stumbling block.

did themselves harm

andrew yang :: after being frozen out of the first debate almost entirely, the entrepreneur acquitted himself very well in the second. this time around, he was allotted less time than any of the others but that might have been a good thing for him. once again, he hammered on his issue of guaranteed basic income, which is a very solid idea, but he made it seem too gimmicky and game show-like by announcing that he was going to run his own pilot project with ten random american families. making his campaign seem more like a game show is a bad look for someone who presents himself as the opposite of donald trump. although he can be charismatic, some of his humour seemed uncomfortable and awkward. most damaging, however, was the fact that he was so clearly out of his depth when he had to talk about issues outside of his immediate area of expertise.

joe biden :: no matter what the party brass and the media say, biden had a bad night. early on, he was solid enough but the wheels started to come off as time wore on. he might have gained some sympathy when julian castro hinted that he was losing his memory but his later response talking about record players and radio seemed to make castro's point seem pretty on the mark. but his biggest mistake might be one that the mainstream media missed entirely in their post-game analysis: the substance of that bizarre "record player" answer was that he was saying poor families, especially poor black families, weren't capable of taking care of their children without government assistance. and it wasn't just that his language was rambling: there is literally no other way to interpret what he said. luckily for all of us, while the mainstream media congratulated him on his strongest performance to date, a few journalists on social media, particularly anand giridharadas, heard the comments loud and clear and wasted no time calling biden out. giridharadas said that biden's statement should be disqualifying on its own it was so bad. although it was missed/ ignored at first, biden's show of passive racism actually seems to be getting more traction by the hour. that said, biden enjoys a huge advantage with both black and latinx voters and it's unclear if they are pissed off enough to shift their support to another candidate. in polls, biden still looks like the best bet to beat trump and that is the number one priority for a lot of democrats. biden's biggest problem is that he seems to have no potential for growth. if he's going to remain in the lead, he needs both sanders and warren to stay in the race as long as possible and for them to start doing damage to each other. if he can't win people over, his strong polling against trump is going to be of limited use.

julian castro :: it pains me to put him here because 95% of his performance was excellent, even if he didn't do quite enough to distinguish himself from the likes of booker and harris. but all you're going to hear about is the two seconds where he asked joe biden whether he had forgotten what he said just minutes before. the media gleefully pounced on the fact that castro's recollection of what biden said was incorrect, meaning that he's the one who couldn't remember. and they've been a lot more eager to get angry at castro for being ageist than they to castigate biden for being racist. they've also conveniently left out the fact [both in terms of commentary and in terms of editing] that castro's original criticism was that biden was invoking barack obama's name when it was advantageous but brushing off wrong-headed policies as being obama's alone. and that was something biden literally had said just moments before [but which isn't getting any airplay]. i'm not defending castro's veiled accusation of senility: i don't care if biden did show some evidence of it himself later on, such language has no place in civilized debate and introducing it on a national platform is to start the descent to trump level. given the chance to walk the comment back a little, the former cabinet secretary has stood by his words, which is worse than the original statement. but castro is a far better person and a far better candidate than he's being framed as in the wake of that comment. it's too bad no one's going to give him the chance to show that going forward.

i think we can expect that the field will be winnowed further down before the fourth debate, which is scheduled for next month. i wouldn't necessarily count on anyone who was on the stage tonight backing down, however. it may seem like too many cooks are still working on the political broth but it's questionable if any of them has really dealt a death blow to their chances. that may change if any of the ten fails to make it to the next debate but for now, there's not a lot of reason for any of them to outright call it quits. 

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