The second round of debates between the Democratic candidates for president demonstrated how imperfect the presidential debate system is. The candidates basically repeated the talking points that they had mouthed in the first round. Important issues such as taxation of the rich were all but ignored, while issues such as healthcare and immigration tended to focus on distortions that left out important facts, e.g. Medicare coverage is much better than most commercial policies or seeking asylum is not a crime. There was the usual amount of deviousness, most specifically the focus on the cost of Medicare for all—the more rightwing candidates such as Biden and Bennet focused only on the increase of what would be taken out of pocket A without considering that it would cost less money to society overall.
The inability to drill down to the facts and truth of any issue had nothing to do with the large number of candidates and everything to do with the decision not to have topic-specific debates. Topic specific debates would solve all but one of the structural problems that the debate system currently has. Individual debates could cover immigration, climate change, foreign affairs, the economy, social issues and wealth inequality. By focusing on one topic, the viewers and the American public would get more information about what the candidates will really do. We would also get to see how similar all 20 Democratic candidates are on most issues, with differences only concerning the speed with which each wants to move ahead. Candidates would have time to dismantle the false rhetoric of their opponents on an issue instead of merely trading slogans.
In a single topic debate, we would also learn which candidates have only talking points and which have an in-depth understanding. Candidates with detailed plans, such as O’Rourke and Booker on immigration, Inslee on the environment, Harris on health care and Warren on everything, would have time to explain them. Other candidates could disagree on specifics, or get on board.
The one problem not solved by going to a one-topic-per-debate format is the desire of the moderators to create arguments and magnify differences. That seems to be the motivation behind Tapper’s insistence on spewing bad math by asking candidates whether they supported raising taxes on the middle class to pay for single-payer healthcare insurance. The question was inflammatory and wrong-headed, since under a single payer system premiums, and maybe even deductibles and copays, would disappear to be replaced by taxation resulting in a lower total cost to society that would translate to lower costs for healthcare than most people currently pay. Tapper knows these facts, but like most of the mainstream news media, he poses questions based on Republican message points. It also was a trivial detail in the grand scheme of things—the main point is that virtually all 20 of the candidates want some form of universal health care.
Talking from the Republican playbook certainly is behind the disdain that the mainstream news media retains for straight-talking, truth-telling Bill De Blasio. New York’s Mayor certainly made the best points of the second night. He reminded everyone of the fairness of and necessity to raise taxes on the wealthy. He also pointed out how inadequate health insurance coverage is for most people, the ready answer to those who are worried that people with commercial insurance won’t want to have Medicare instead.
If the constant interruption by the moderators when candidates’ time ended seemed especially irritating this round, it was because in an overwhelming majority of the cases, the candidates already knew they were running out of time and were obviously winding down their remarks. While we would never want a Trump-like demagogue to take control of a debate, it seems to disruptive not to give a candidate an extra 5-10 seconds to complete her or his thought.
As to the debates themselves. Warren and Bernie won the first night, with no other candidate really distinguishing her or himself. The second night featured a much stronger set of secondary candidates—I could imagine Castro, Gillibrand, Yang and especially De Blasio being excellent presidents, but can’t say the same for O’Rourke, Delaney, Bullock or Ryan. Forced to declare “winners,” I would give the second night to Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
Biden showed himself to be gracious and good-natured, but did not distinguish himself as either an issues wonk or a brilliant speaker. The contrast with the other “Silent Generation” candidate—Bernie Sanders—was stunning. Bernie maintains the energy, sharp wit and enthusiasm of a young person; Biden looks ready to sign whatever order his advisors put in front of his face without reading it to be followed by nine holes of golf. To be sure, a Reagan or Bush II type of disengaged leader managing a Democratic administration would be a lot better than a sociopathic, ignorant, mendacious racist who surrounds himself with yes-white-men. But I like the person in charge to actually be in charge, and I’m not sure that would be the case with Biden anymore.
The biggest losers were O’Rourke and Buttegieg, because the debates tested their superficial appeal and they failed to show anything special under the charisma. Unless Buttegieg can turn a little of his horde of money into support in the polls, what could have been a Big Five or a Big Six rolling into the primaries and caucuses is already down to just a Big Four: Biden, Bernie, Warren and Harris.
For the record, my first choice at this point is Elizabeth Warren, followed in order of preference, by Inslee, De Blasio, Harris, Castro and Bernie. I would like to say that Biden, Beto, Williamson, Delaney, Bennet and Bullock are absolutely unacceptable, but I would vote for any of them over Donald Trump (or most other Republicans). Today, more than perhaps any other time in U.S. history, the party matters more than the candidate. The biggest lesson from these first two rounds of debates is that to save the country and the planet—literally—we must vote straight Democratic for every office from president down through dogcatcher.