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My Pre-Iowa Caucus Debate Review

Max Stearns

The final pre-Iowa caucus Democratic debate perfectly illustrated why there have been too many debates. Score cards at debates at this point are relatively meaningless. Those who pay careful attention--and anyone participating in the Iowa caucus is doing so--already know pretty much all they need to know about the men and women on last night's stage. Perhaps they are looking for some big aha moment that might change things. If so, they surely left disappointed.

Several progressive memes on social media suggest that it is unwise or worse for Democrats to play up, or into, the emerging Warren/Sanders rift over whether Sanders told Warren a woman cannot win the White House against Trump. With respect, I disagree. Politics is a blood sport. Primaries reward plurality winners, and pluralities can occupy extremes on either side of the conventional right-left spectrum. By contrast, general elections more typically reward majority candidates capable of appealing to the center. Yes, our recent politics have grown farther and farther apart. And the 2016 election, in particular, rewarded Donald Trump, a highly unusual candidate. But what made Trump unusual was not that he was firmly committed to a right wing ideological extreme. What made him unusual was that he was committed to nothing, and that he also exhibited a profound lack of knowledge, understanding, or insight. We should not let election 2016 thwart the essential truth that there is a difference between primary cycles and general elections. Moreover, if we are to take a lesson from election 2016, it is this: that Hillary won the popular vote by three million of approximately 120 million votes cast shows that the real center of gravity is only slightly center left, certainly not hard left. Allowing fighting at the party’s wings, with the hope that a more moderate candidate might just emerge capable of defeating Trump, is not merely fair. It is wise.

Finally, before getting to the debate assessments, I cannot help but point out that the Warren/Sanders rift itself reminds me of the TV series, The Affair. When watching that series, I often came away thinking it is impossible to have such divergent recollections of recent events in which the major players were so intimately involved. No longer. We now have two non-fictional, and opposing, realities respecting a very recent and important event. The papering over, at least until the awkward rejected handshake, although interesting to watch, remains for me a bit jarring.

Here are my quick takes. These are listed in my personal order of who I most, to who I least, hope gets the nomination of these six. This is different from who I think performed most well versus least well, although I will discuss both, and I’ll explain how these relate along the way.

Amy Klobuchar: Still my favorite. Yes, she had a senior moment, and perhaps we Democrats were unfair, bordering on cruel, when back in the 2015 Republican primary debates, Governor Rick Perry experienced what many regarded as a disqualifying senior moment, forgetting the name of an agency that Donald Trump later tapped him, with no small degree of irony, to lead. Klobuchar nicely benefitted from Warren's observation about the on-stage women outperforming men overall in elections, and she also continues to emerge as a responsible, focused, and careful middle lane candidate. From my perspective that lane comes down to her or Joe Biden. I remain certain that within that binary comparison, she's better, and by a wide margin, even as Biden himself had a very good debate last night. Finally, on memory, for those, like me, who are prone to senior moments, this recent NYT piece is very much worth your time.

Joe Biden: Yes, he had a good night. He didn't have any major stumbles, and he was very clear in distinguishing his policies from those embraced by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on health care, troop withdrawals, and other policies that have created the center left/progressive hard left divide in the Democratic party. I worry a bit that Klobuchar's senior moment potentially benefits Biden by giving the appearance that his stumbles are no different than hers. But they are, both in frequency and content. Failing to recall a single name is very different from the sorts of stumbles Biden has more routinely exhibited on the debate stage. We also should not be overwhelmed by the recency effect. If we graded these two candidates' performances over the entirety of the debates, which is a far more meaningful comparison, Klobuchar was a vastly better performer, and this has implications for how each will perform on a debate stage with Trump. Their policies are not terribly different, and the question is which has a better shot at defeating Trump. I continue to think that Klobuchar does, but I am also comfortable enough with Biden if he wins nomination, which he very well may.

Pete Buttigieg: Although not dramatically—I’m still ranking him third--for me his stock lowered a bit last night. This is for two reasons. In response to a truly critical question on Middle East troop withdrawals, he played an emotional trick, rather than seriously addressing the profound policy implications of creating a void where terrorists are happy to enter the space. The anecdote about a deployed soldier not looking back at a toddler, while intended for emotional effect, is, ironically, the very kind of thing that shows why high-level governmental experience, or high-level military experience, is critical in having the perspective for such inevitably difficult deployment decisions. The second trick involves playing to those who embrace religion when discussing various domestic policies. As these debates have gone on, I increasingly have the sense of someone with a default play book that, surprisingly for such an obviously brilliant man, too often dominates the substance. I am left to wonder whether this tendency might help to explain some of the challenges he has faced, for example, in gaining support within the African American community. To be clear, I could happily support the former mayor, but I do not think him preferable as the center lane candidate over Klobuchar or Biden, who I view as the major contenders.

Tom Steyer: He had a very good night, frankly his best, and one of the best overall. He was sharp, focused, and able to distinguish himself, especially on climate policy. He was likable. But as I said, this is based on my overall views, not the debate itself. I simply think it would be a mistake to nominate a billionaire businessman, as opposed to a deeply experienced politician, to run against Trump, especially because one of the critical issues in the general election will be the importance of deep experience in helping to extricate us from the problems this administration, with its leader entirely devoid of such experience, has created. Perhaps Steyer might be Secretary of Commerce, and perhaps he might run for office again, after accumulating that hard-earned experience.

Elizabeth Warren: She was the best debater last night, and in some other debates as well. And yes, she is second to last in my ranking. I truly hope she does not get the nomination. She has an answer for everything, she doesn't stumble, and she is sharp, smart, and even sometimes funny. She perfectly exemplifies two points: (1) why debate performance is merely a factor, and (2) why my progressive friends who post memes about not playing up the Bernie/Warren divide are, in my view, mistaken. The problem with debates is that they disallow second and third layer analytical inquiries. If we start from the premise that her wealth tax (1) will pass, (2) will not result in major capital outflows, and (3) will not run into possible constitutional infirmities, then all the pieces of her puzzle fit nicely together, and she can answer tightly all questions without too much worry over details. But none of those steps are obvious, and most are highly suspect, especially given the contrary weight of the evidence respecting such taxes where they have elsewhere been tried. Although, with some irony, she claims to be a capitalist to Sanders socialist, she is not. She is a deeper thinking visceral socialist savvy enough to not so label herself, and this is quite problematic. Her implicit models fail. And, as importantly, the center of gravity in US politics is clearly not where she is. The former mayor had the better of the exchange on boldness of ideas not equating to unrealistic ambition. This, again, is why I see nothing wrong with allowing Warren and Sanders to help bring each other down.

Bernie Sanders: I continue to be at a loss to see this man’s apparent appeal. I won’t purport to know which side was right on the now infamous Warren/Sanders meeting, but I will say that I can envision Sanders having made such a comment, or at least a comment that could have been so construed. His response, to me, sounded rather Shakespearean, as in Hamlet’s famous “the [gentleman] doth protest too much, methinks.” The larger issue, of course, involves the impact of his health care proposal on the national debt. But here’s the thing. Warren avoids that with a set of assumptions that simply fail; he avoids those failing assumptions, leaving a literal gaping budgetary hole. Which is better? Neither, of course. And so, I’m happy to have their past love affair, yes figurative, grow increasingly tense, even if a consequence is disputed memories of times gone by. After all, only by having them eliminate each other from consideration might the Democrats have a shot at this thing.

I welcome your thoughts.


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