By Robert A. Vella

Last night, the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 campaign concluded with the second set of candidates.  Unlike the previous evening when the first set of candidates debated, I watched the entire two-hour coverage.  It was painfully disappointing on many levels, but my harshest criticism goes to host NBC and its moderators.  More on that in a moment.

The specter of Donald Trump changed American politics in the most fundamental of ways.  From the very beginning of his run for president, he brazenly disregarded the normative rules for campaigning and later for governing.  He feverishly stoked the fears of Americans suffering anxiety over a rapidly changing and increasingly problematic world.  He incitingly fueled the fires of hate and xenophobia.  He blatantly lied at every turn and maniacally declared his omnipotence like the would-be dictator that he is.  He viciously attacked his political opponents, the free press, America’s allies, and anyone else who dared to challenge him.  His conduct as a person, as a businessman, and as a public official, has been thoroughly corrupt and contemptible.  The 2016 election proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the brittle glass plane displaying the image of American civility and high ethical standards had been shattering into tiny pieces.

The old ways of doing things were over.  The public was shocked into a new awareness, a fresh perspective on politics devoid of the pretense of the past.  Intellectualism, reason, and compromise were supplanted by visceral emotion, cultural identity, and aggressiveness.  Politicians who couldn’t adapt to this new dynamic wouldn’t be heard.  For stodgy Democrats, a clarion call was sounded.  They would have to find a different way to appeal to the people.

In the debate last night, I didn’t see much innovation or change from the past.  Former vice president Joe Biden was especially archaic.  He focused almost entirely on defending the record of the Obama administration, promoting his ability to work with Republicans, and deflecting away criticism of his long career (e.g. his opposition to school busing during desegregation).  Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, although an economic populist in contrast to the centrist Biden, also seemed stale and uninspiring.  He kept repeating his usual mantra about the threat posed to democracy and good governance by unrestrained corporate power.  Although his message is still relevant, the advent of Trump poses an even greater and more imminent threat.  Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper repeatedly bashed the rise of “socialism” within the party.  Colorado senator Michael Bennet was clearly the most effective of the older centrists, although his passion didn’t match that of populist Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren the previous evening.  New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand had some notable moments (e.g. her call for public financing of elections), and her debating skills have definitely improved.  California senator Kamala Harris correctly scolded the other candidates for interrupting each other (i.e. her “food fight” comment) and asserted her gravitas as a legal professional, but I expected more from her (most observers were more positive than me).  South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg was smooth and compelling at times, although he could’ve made a bigger impact than he did.  California congressman Eric Swalwell performed fairly well and scored big with his assault weapons buyback proposal.  The other candidates looked extraneous and out of place.

There was considerable debate over specific issues such as healthcare and climate change;  and, although this is very important to formulating public policy, it’s not going to be as important when the Democratic Party nominee goes head-to-head against Trump next year.  Questions from the debate moderators consistently asked each candidate how they would pay for their proposals.  As I stated earlier, Trump will just lie or flippantly refuse to answer such questions.  Regardless, the critical nature of providing healthcare to all people as well as avoiding a climate catastrophe supersede financial considerations because the societal costs of doing nothing are much higher.

Finally, here’s my criticism of NBC and its moderators.  As noted above, the debate got off to a rocky start with the candidates talking over each other.  Many of the questions were embarrassingly gimmicky such as asking the candidates to name a single domestic policy goal under the assumption that other goals couldn’t be achieved, or asking the candidates to identify one foreign policy problem needing to be solved in a world beset by numerous foreign policy problems all of which need to be solved, or asking candidates for one-word answers to questions of great complexity.  The candidates, by the way, were allowed just 60 seconds for answers and 30 seconds for rebuttals.  When the candidates frequently and understandably violated these time constraints, they were scolded by the moderators like naughty schoolchildren.  Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow were especially condescending, and Maddow even chastised the audience on more than one occasion for committing the terrible crime of vocalizing its reactions.  The corporate media needs to understand that the voters want to hear the candidates not its egocentric talking heads;  and, if noise from the audience really is a problem, then don’t have live audiences.

Fact-checking night two of the first Democratic presidential debate

In other news

From:  Supreme Court refuses to hear Alabama’s defense of abortion ban struck down last year

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ducked another abortion case Friday, refusing to let Alabama defend its ban on a second-term method of abortion that was struck down last year.

The justices, who already have turned down opportunities to hear abortion cases from Louisiana and Indiana, denied the state’s petition to have its ban on dilation & evacuation abortions heard next term.

From:  House passes $4.6 billion border bill as leaders cave to moderate Democrats and GOP

The House passed a $4.6 billion emergency spending bill for the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday, after Democratic leaders retreated from efforts to amend the legislation to add more restrictions on the Trump administration.

The 305-to-102 vote sends the legislation, passed by the Senate earlier in the week, to President Trump, who is expected to sign it. The measure will pump billions of dollars into the budgets of agencies, including the Health and Human Services Department, that have been overwhelmed by the influx of Central American migrants at the Southern border.

From:  Vladimir Putin says liberalism has ‘become obsolete’

Vladimir Putin has trumpeted the growth of national populist movements in Europe and America, crowing that liberalism is spent as an ideological force.

In an FT interview in the Kremlin on the eve of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, the Russian president said “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose” as the public turned against immigration, open borders and multiculturalism.

Trump and Putin joke about election meddling, see:  Trump gives Putin light-hearted warning: ‘Don’t meddle in the election’

21 thoughts on “A disappointing debate (plus other news)

  1. Good post. I think the nature of the debates are going to change over the course of the primary and certainly once we get into the general election debates. How the Democrats handle each other may play out like previous years whereas how they handle Trump will remain to be seen.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Biden and Bernie too old and perhaps stale. Harris and Warren are probably the best choice, but I can’t help but just loving Mayor Pete. He reeks of decency and intellect.

    But I’ll vote for any democrat over trump…even a toad.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Oh and I do agree about trump’s campaign in style, even though I can’t stand him. He makes it like a WWE wrestling event…all fake and phony, but the crowds love it. Today they want fireworks and shoot from the hip answers, rather than something that sounds like a written speech.
    The world of politics has changed and the Dems better get on board.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Strictly in terms of being able to stand up to Trump, I think Kamela Harris came off far better than most of the others, both in terms of what she said and how she said it. If, as polls show, the Dem’s #1 priority is defeating Trump, I’m confident she’s the one to put him in his place in a debate (so much so, that he may even refuse to debate her, if she the Dem’s nominee).

    Liked by 3 people

  5. At times with Julian Castro the other night (not last night), he was able to combine emotion with policy and reason. Up until the debate, he struggled to gain traction. But, polls aside, that combination may be the most “winnable.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I found the second debate to be somewhat hypocritical. They talked about nothing getting done in government, yet the majority of them are Senators! None of them said what they would or could do as President that will change Senate votes as long as Dems are the minority.

    Gov. Inslee caught my eye in the first debate. I’d like to hear more from him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Inslee is my governor and I like him a lot. Still, I thought he tried too hard to distance himself from the other candidates which seemed like a desperate act to save his candidacy.


        • He boasted that he was the only candidate on the stage who actually implemented a “public option” healthcare program which implied that the others didn’t work hard enough towards that goal. It was a sharply critical statement that triggered angry responses from the other candidates.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for explaining that. He might have had a right to do that boasting because I don’t think there were any governors on that stage besides him. As governor, he was able to get legislation passed in his state for a public option. I’m unsure if the U.S. Senate introduced such a Bill. I’m still open to hearing more from him, as well as some other candidates, especially Warren.

          Liked by 1 person

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