Friday, September 13, 2019
BTRTN: Dem Debate #3... The Elusive God of Momentum Takes the Night Off
Finally, only one debate, featuring the ten legit candidates. Steve watched a wonkfest in which most everybody held serve.
Of all the gods on the Olympus of politics, none dazzles and shines quite like Momentum. Riding Media, the mighty stallion, Momentum elevates and soars, lifting its chosen candidate like Icarus, casting the sheen of deity on mere mortal flesh. Momentum casts an aura of inevitability and triumph over its chosen love.
But Momentum is a fickle and fiendish god who will depart in sudden silence, abandoning a lover in a heartbeat for a new dalliance. Momentum seems biologically incapable of sustained fealty, but rather is a serial monogamist with the attention span of a re-tweet in a sub-Reddit.
Back in March, it was embarrassing to watch it fawn over Pete, and for a few moments there, we thought it might be lasting. Then Joe entered and Momentum dutifully took its place at his side, but the god appeared bored by its obligation to pay homage to the elder statesmen. Momentum flitted over to Kamala, and then dropped out of sight.
But Momentum is needy, and can’t bear not being in a relationship. It craves excitement and is dazzled by risk, energy, and vitality. Soon, momentum was seen about town as just so much arm candy for Elizabeth Warren, and the rumors of a lasting relationship began anew.
Indeed, most star-gazers expected last night to be the big coming out party for the attractive new couple, in a Democratic Debate in which the ten leading candidates would finally all appear on one stage.
With Elizabeth Warren finally on the same stage with Joe Biden for the first time, people expected that the two would go toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball, dancing geek-to-geek, and that the 2020 narrative might be decisively shaped. By Friday, morning, would the charismatic, articulate, and folksy Warren finally displace Biden, if not immediately in polls, then most certainly in the liberal media tabloid romances pages that track the affections of the great god of Momentum?
Ah, fickle god Momentum.
If last night had been a prize fight, it would have been one of those brutal fifteen rounders that ends in a draw, blood everywhere, and no real change in the rankings. Much sound and fury, signifying nothing more than that this is going to be a long haul.
Like most debates, there were several electric moments that could be used in the A blocs of cable news programming.
Most notably, Beto O’Rourke delivered an impassioned plea about the devastating carnage of military-grade weapons, concluding by confirming that his administration would actually take the step of confiscating these weapons from owners.
“When we see that being used against children, and in Odessa, I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15, and that mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa and Midland, there weren't enough ambulances to get to them in time, hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
It was a galvanizing moment, in which O’Rourke went far, far beyond any position that the other Democratic candidates were willing to take on this charged issue. And yet it appeared that O’Rourke may actually have been more aligned with the rapidly evolving sentiment of the population than his more timid colleagues. Prior to last night, Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy appeared to be on life support, powered by a couple of double-A batteries. He is the candidate whose fate may have most changed by last night. For Democrats who believe that gun violence is the number one issue in the country, Beto O’Rourke just became your guy.
The second viral sound byte was when the usually affable and charming Julián Castro went thermonuclear on Joe Biden, attempting to turn what was at best a questionable interpretation of a Biden comment into a referendum on Biden’s age, mental acuity, and memory. Castro so overplayed his hand that the audience raced to Biden’s side.
BIDEN: They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in.
CASTRO: You just said that. You just said that two minutes ago. You just two minutes ago that they would have to buy in.
BIDEN: Do not have to buy in if you can't afford it.
CASTRO: You said they would have to buy in.
BIDEN: Your grandmother would not have to buy in. If she qualifies for Medicaid, she would automatically be enrolled.
CASTRO: Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can't believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you're saying they don't have to buy in. You're forgetting that.
Expect Castro to spend the next month on his heels, constantly having to defend his overzealous attack. As it is, Castro has the lowest polls among the ten candidates who qualified for the debate… his overreaction to Biden’s comment may have effectively taken him out of the game.
Yet apart from these two moments, the entire evening was a 1950s Big Ten football game… three yards and a cloud of dust. You could make a reasonable argument that the biggest winner was Barack Obama, as all the candidates who had made the mistake of treading upon his legacy in the last debate went miles and miles out of their way to lionize the popular President last night. This, of course, caused Joe Biden to once again resort to his campaign’s most essential rationale… that he loves Barack Obama more and better than anybody.
Once again, the first topic of the evening was healthcare, a topic that really ought to be a big winner for the Democratic Party. Instead, the angry bickering, out-sized statistics, thunderous accusations, and smug posturing threaten to turn this issue into the kryptonite of party policy.
The fault lines have been clear forever: Warren and Sanders want to end private insurance and move to a single-payer system, arguing that the overall cost of healthcare will go down and the quality of healthcare will improve if greedy, for-profit entities like insurance companies are eliminated and big pharma is reined in by governmental authority. Moderates insist on a more incremental approach to providing universal healthcare by adding a public option to Obamacare, but preserving the right of individuals to continue with their private insurance. The Warren/Sanders position may actually be correct – a single payer system could well be more efficient and would actually achieve universal coverage. But the optics are terrible: it would appear that the government is “taking away” the right to seek private coverage, and it is inevitable that middle class taxes would increase even if that cost was offset by dramatically lower medical costs.
It was on the issue of healthcare that Elizabeth Warren stumbled right out of the box. Bernie Sanders at least has the guts to admit that a single payer system would result in higher taxes for the middle class. He argues vigorously that their “overall costs” will decline, but he concedes that taxes will increase. When Warren was asked to address this exact point, she chose to evade the question, no matter how pointedly George Stephanopoulos teed it up:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Direct question. You said middle class families are going to pay less. But will middle class taxes go up to pail for pay for the program? I know you believe that the deductibles and the premiums will go down. Will middle class taxes go up? Will private insurance be eliminated?
WARREN: Look, what families have to deal with is cost, total cost. That's what they have to deal with. And understand, families are paying for their health care today. Families pay every time an insurance company says, sorry, you can't see that specialist. Every time an insurance company says, sorry, that doctor is out of network, sorry, we are not covering that prescription.
Families are paying every time they don't get a prescription filled because they can't pay for it. They don't have a lump checked out because they can't afford the co-pay. What we're talking about here is what's going to happen in families' pockets, what's going to happen in their budgets.
And the answer is on Medicare for All, costs are going to go up for wealthier individuals and costs are going to go up for giant corporations. But for hard-working families across this country, costs are going to go down and that's how it should work under Medicare for All in our health care system.
In truth, Elizabeth Warren missed her opportunity to capitalize on the momentum she brought into the debate. She receded into the background as other candidates seemed much more engaged, much more present, and even much more capable of connecting with the audience. All of Booker, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, and Klobuchar were in the game last night, fighting for every yard. Warren warmed up toward the end of the evening, but by then all but the most wonkish of policy nerds had begun channel surfing.
Ask people what they think of Joe Biden’s performance last night, and you will simply be conducting a Rorschach test on their incoming bias. Biden supporters will say that he was far more energized and animated than in past debates. Biden detractors will say that in his effort to appear more energetic, he spat our answers at a frenetic, almost uncontrolled pace, leaping and pirouetting across the space/time continuum, occasionally appearing to have lost contact with the tower. All you can really say about Biden’s performance last night was that he did not commit yet another seismic gaffe.
If forced to call the evening, I give it to Cory Booker. He stands apart from the grave, intense, and serious rivals because he appears to be enjoying himself on the stage. The genial, upbeat Booker is passionate, engaged, and yet also fun, deftly invoking humor and flashing smiles in the midst of the somber parade of worrisome topics.
We love Pete Buttigieg, but he has now settled at a plateau as the ever-well prepared honor student and Eagle Scout who brings some great one-liners but has yet to truly take command of the room. One also gets the sense that the well-funded Mayor Pete has a much longer view than other candidates, and he is putting his marbles on a ground game in Iowa with the goal of pulling off a game-changing stunner there.
Kamala Harris had a decent night but she utterly lacks the gift of appearing to deliver planned zingers as if they were spontaneous moments. As such, they often fall with a thud, as when she made an incredibly juvenile comment that seemed intended to question Donald Trump’s manhood. C’mon, Kamala. We are Democrats. We don’t do stupid stuff like that.
There is a doggedness about Amy Klobuchar that is endearing. She is gradually learning how to simultaneously convey Midwestern decency with ferocious determination and willfulness. She and Buttigieg are each waiting in the wings to lead the centrist Republicans if Biden ever completely collapses, but their candidacies are each beginning to look like just so much legwork for 2024, 2028, or – in Pete’s case – 2048.
Ah, Andrew Yang. Call me crazy, but I don’t get it. He has fanatic supporters and is well funded, but his campaign seems to be a series of unexplained stunts. Yang started his evening last night by announcing that his campaign was launching the functional equivalent of The Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes to attract support, and then he had the gall to think that anything else he said should be taken seriously. Yang is now merely a curio, a vestige of the period in this campaign cycle when we had to endure the time delays as Marianne Williamson was beamed in from the Crab Nebula. Say good night, Andrew.
Bernie Sanders seems to just keep getting madder and madder. Maybe Bernie is just angry because everybody has absconded with his ideas. But I don’t see any of this ending well for Bernie, who just seems like he is ferociously and perpetually pissed off. Hey, Bern-man, lighten up! Nobody wants to elect President Gloom. Name your great Democratic Presidents of the past century and you see a bunch of guys with a sly wit, a winning smile, and a twenty-ton reservoir of optimism. Bernie’s people should force him to watch last night’s debate with the sound turned off. All he would see is the face of a mean-spirited and angry man who appears contemptuous of all around him. Not a winning play, Bernie.
I hesitate to provide a scorecard on this evening, because the bottom line is that very little in the polling will likely change as a result of last night. But here goes:
Tonight, on Olympus, a fickle god played coy, withdrawing as it watched a field of candidates ardently woo the awesome power of Momentum.
Last night, no one took flight.
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