Friday 28 June 2019

First Democratic Debate, Night Two

You can watch here and follow the Guardian's live coverage here

The candidates this time around are:

Joe Biden, former Vice President
Bernie Sanders, the junior Senator from Vermont
Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana 
Kamala Harris, the junior Senator from California
Andrew Yang, and entrepreneur
Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior Senator from New York
John Hickenlooper, former Governor of Colorado
Marianne Williamson, an author and activist
Michael Bennet, the senior Senator from Colorado
Eric Swalwell, U.S. Representative from California

Of these candidates, only Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Harris polled over 10% in the qualifying polls. Joe Biden is leading the field, but has been struggling with stories in which women have described him as making them feel "uncomfortable". He also seems to have given up on the idea that millennials will vote for him (or conversely, if he does win the nomination, he's fairly sure that they will vote for him for lack of an alternative).

NBC predicts that this second night of the first debate will feature foreign policy more heavily, re-introducing the issue that Democrats aren't that different from Republicans when it comes to foreign policy, and have to find a point of difference (like specifics of trade policy, tariffs, competing with China, etc.). It's also a question whether Russia will feature more heavily since it didn't, at all, last night, in spite of the ongoing debate about whether the Democrats should pursue impeachment. In the 2018 House of Representatives election, the Democratic party picked up 41 seats. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, has been very cautious to support impeachment proceedings, and polling has been inconclusive regarding the support for impeachment vs. further investigations, but a strategic question for the Democrats is if revealing more about the collusion of the Trump campaign with Russia prior to the previous election (and keeping in mind that Russian troll accounts are very likely still active and shaping online debate) would help the Democrats beat Trump in this one.

So far, nothing about foreign policy but the chance to get a first impression from a range of candidates that I knew nothing about prior to this debate. The first of those impression is personal, and may not have any relevance to this at all - that Buttigieg and Sanders are two very polar versions of incredibly grating, which seems to have done nothing to dissuade their supporters. They are also on polar opposite ends, as far as the range on this debate goes, politically, with Buttigieg being a centrist who is, if anything and ironically, the youngest candidate here but also the closest to Joe Biden, and Sanders being the one most on the left. In the pre-reporting for this, it was mentioned that Elizabeth Warren shares many of Bernie Sanders' policies (I'd argue it's not co-opting but two people just arriving at the same conclusions), except she can present numbers on how to pay for her ambitious policies for social change. Bernie Sanders takes a long time to clarify that middle class Americans would in fact be paying higher taxes, but that this would be made up for by lowering their insurance premiums in a single payer health care system.

Other than that - Kamala Harris is doing very well, perhaps most of all because she is presenting her points in an impassioned way that doesn't come across as "man shaking his hand at cloud", and because she isn't perpetually interrupting everybody. She will be the break-out from this debate. Kirsten Gillibrand is trying to present detailed policy on a stage that isn't meant for that, and failing fairly badly, even though it would be hopeful to think that this refusal of resorting to personal anecdotes and short soundbites could be successful. Eric Swalwell is very present and directly confronting Joe Biden on being old, which is also an odd way to capture the millennial vote.

The most inspiring bit of using a personal anecdote to talk about the "crisis at the border" comes from someone who hasn't contributed much so far int he debate, Michael Bennet, who shares about family members separated from parents after the holocaust, and how this medieval conception of a border wall is now the symbol for America, rather than the Statue of Liberty. He is also the first one who points out that Russia is more of a threat, considering what they have done "to our elections". Also, as a side-note, Joe Biden is hesitant to say clearly that he would not deport undocumented migrants (he twists out of the question by saying they shouldn't be "the focus of deportation", which means nothing).

Elsewhere, Andrew Yang speaks about tariffs and trade policy in more detail than anyone else on stage but probably doesn't have much of a shot here (but it's a good pitch to be part of a Democratic cabinet, in any case).

Whatever else happens in this campaign, Kamala Harris taking down Joe Biden for voicing support and admiration for Eastland and Talmadge, the two Democratic segregationists Senators he used to work with, will haunt Biden for the rest of it. I want to believe that he can't come back from that in 2019, including the way he argued with Kamala Harris after the question was asked. This will be the moment that stands out from both these debates: a thing that will Joe Biden throughout the rest of the campaign, and the moment that Kamala Harris stood out from the rest of the field.

In summary: Whoever supports Buttigieg and Sanders will probably still support them after this, but Joe Biden has taken a serious hit, and Kamala Harris has built a serious profile, not just as someone who can stand up to the front-runner but as someone who may seriously challenge Trump in debates beyond this primary. I thought Eric Swalwell got heaps of exposure from this debate. As reasonable Kirsten Gillibrand sounds (and I like her voting history), she's probably not cut out for this.

And as a side-note, what has been amazing me about this race is the fact that Democratic candidates across the line voice support for reproductive rights, support abortion, mention trans rights unprompted, speak about climate change. They support gun control. This is a whole different world than the world of four and eight years ago, and one of the stories that will emerge from this election cycle is that of how divided the United States truly is. The only meaningful way to think about this is that there are two societies, existing at the same time - one of the past, one of the future, and for the moment, they are competing about which one will get to decide the next four years. This is why it seems so odd when there is discussion about reaching across the isle, and bipartisanship. I think this particular election is way, way beyond that. Which is a very weird moment to live through, in history, but as a piece of consolation, it's the same nearly everywhere else. 

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