Sound Bytes: A Running Diary of the First Democratic Debate
Welcome to debate season! Hopefully you've already read up on how debates are dumb and ineffective as currently constructed, because it's now time to watch them despite all outstanding objections. Because I find them fascinating and also because have a problem, I will be watching every single debate and furiously taking notes, and sharing those notes when they're at least 1% insightful – the exact polling requirement to get into the first debate. Seems kind of ridiculous, doesn't it?
Some quick notes: I usually watch them after they've aired live just so I can listen on 1.75x speed, thereby managing to not fall asleep from the glacial pace of the event. My notes are typically without the benefit of Reddit / Twitter / newspaper groupthink, which makes it easy to compare what I genuinely thought with what everyone else thought. I'm also going to try to not get mad at the debate format and accept that as a given, but no promises here. Okay, 20 candidates. Let's fucking go.
2min – We're off to a strange start, where Savannah Guthrie ask Elizabeth Warren what she would do about people who are afraid of change. I guess that's important on a macro level, but could we not be a little bit more specific? I'm already nervous that there are three moderators, as Guthrie is joined by Lester Holt and whoever José Diaz-Balart is. I actually have never heard of this person before. Anyway, Warren treats the dumb question with more seriousness than it deserves and gives a good answer.
4min – I wonder what the point was when Amy Klobuchar became a serious presidential candidate. Was it when Brett Kavanaugh got pissy with her during his confirmation hearing? The audience is already annoying with their constant cheering.
6min – I'm hoping that Beto O'Rourke just didn't hear the question and thought they were doing opening statements, because he's going full stump speech. A direct quote: "this economy has got to work for everyone, and right now we know that it isn't. And it's going to take all of us coming together to make sure that it does." It's this kind of bullshit that is such a big turn off. Yeah we know the economy isn't doing well, that's why we're here watching you! It's like when you tell a friend or whoever about something that happened to you in hopes that they'll offer up some wisdom, but they just shrug and say 'yeah that sucks.' I know it sucks, dude. Help me fix it.
7min – I don't really know what the merits are of speaking Spanish. I guess if I saw a candidate up there speaking Hindi or Gujarati, it would be kind of cool, but no more cool than actually having the Indian candidate there. I also am not sure that Spanish is really the language you need to speak in to actually help Latino people. It might also help that you don't stumble while speaking, because then you everyone knows it was a canned, rehearsed speech. Guthrie goes for the early kill here, literally repeating her question while Beto keeps finding ways to dodge it.
9min – Finally, we get into some specifics about antitrust. Guthrie comes back with a question for Warren about picking winners and losers, which was Mitt Romney's entire 2012 case against Barack Obama. Weird.
12min – Tulsi goes into a rant about her military service when asked about equal pay, which is fine from her point of view because she has to introduce herself to a largely unaware public, but is inexcusable from the moderators' point of view. They didn't even bother following up!
14min – de Blasio with a good answer on income inequality, although I'd like to hear some more specifics about what he did in New York City. I have an ominous feeling that this will be a recurring complaint. From what little I've heard about de Blasio, New Yorkers don't even like him, but it's hard to determine whether that's because New Yorkers don't like anyone or because he's a genuinely bad mayor. It would be interesting to have Pete Buttigieg onstage with de Blasio, just to see the latter's annoyance at being one-upped by the mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana.
16min – Inslee is now the third candidate in a row to get the same super-general question, 'how would you solve income inequality.' This is getting to Miss America levels of ridiculousness, where contestants in various states of undress are asked to discuss worldly issues in laughably short amounts of time to give the façade that they are more than just an antiquated hot-or-not competition. I had to look up 'slinging hash' after Inslee said it, and it turns out that it's slang from the mid-1800s. It's woefully on-brand for Inslee, right next to his subsequent statement that wind turbines "cause jobs."
17min – Tim Ryan's bit about dominating the solar industry is just my kind of sexy.
20min – Klobuchar answers a question about keeping private insurance with a lot of details, but none of them as to why keeping private insurance around is inherently better. Why are you concerned about kicking Americans off private insurance in four years? She had a line about something (I have no idea what) being "all foam and no beer," which I can somewhat deduce the meaning of but still had to look up. Apparently it's far from a popular saying.
22min – I don’t know if I never noticed this before, but Beto’s philtrum is very strange. Distinctive, almost. I don’t know if it’s just because he shaved his mustache weird, but once you see it you can’t look away.
23min – Bill deBlasio breaking the interruption barrier. It's like the touch barrier when you're on a date, no one really wants to take that first step, but once you have, everyone feels comfortable doing it.
37min – Cory Booker’s face is doing two different things, while his smile conveys warmth his eyes give off a blistering intensity. Booker somehow didn’t catch on to the awkward silence following Beto’s Spanish monologue (he's now 2 for 2 in not answering questions), so he decides to put his own spin on it. His pause right before answering made it even more funny, because you probably thought he was genuinely mulling over the question, but he was just trying to remember the conjugation of estar.
38min – I don’t know if Julian Castro has committed certain bits of legislation to memory to pull out of his back pocket, but it sure sounded impressive. His answer on decriminalizing illegal immigration down to a civil offense was brilliant, because it combined a very technical thing (Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act) with a very relatable and understandable thing (reducing the penalty for those seeking refuge from bad situations). So often candidates try to give statistics, but statistics are often meaningless without the context. You could tell me that 5 million people in this country don’t have healthcare, or that 50 million people don’t have healthcare. It’s the same to me, just some incredibly big number that I have no way to contextualize. Rattling off three percentages in a row is like reading off the Powerpoint slides when you give a presentation – it’s obvious that you did the wrong kind of preparation.
40min – de Blasio is talking in ALL CAPS IS THIS MIC WORKING HELLO CAN YOU HEAR ME I AM A PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE. It’s dumb that he felt the need to point out that immigrants are not the cause of people’s problems (and big corporations are at fault), because this is a *Democratic* debate. Very few (if any) Democratic voters would have thought the opposite, and even if they did, yelling at them that they were wrong without providing any kind of argument is not particularly effective.
41min – I really wish José Diaz would start firing off questions in rapid Spanish to every candidate who spoke it, just to see if they were bullshitting. That’s a surefire way to end someone’s presidential ambitions.
43min – Castro effectively does the moderator’s job and actually calls out Beto for not doing his homework. Why don't the moderators intervene when a candidate is patently wrong? The only time I remember this happening is when Candy Crowley rebuked Mitt Romney's claim that Barack Obama didn't call something a terrorist attack, and even that was only at Obama's urging.
45min – Klobuchar must be hallucinating that she’s in a debate with Trump, because it’s the second time in three responses that she’s invoked the doings of “this president”. Does no other candidate feel like that's necessary to point out? Save the 'bathrobe 5am foreign policy' jabs for the general, and then swallow them, because that's exactly the kind of stuff that makes you look corny. If you're not funny, you don't have to try to be funny. Barely any presidents have ever been funny. Trump is occasionally funny, but mostly unintentionally funny. Obama was funny, but we only really found that out after he was in office. Among all the great things you hear about Washington and Lincoln, humor never seems to come up as a strong suit.
46min – It’s a gargantuan failure of the moderators to introduce the topic of immigration with an anecdote about family separation. Instead, they should have explicitly opened with the line that ‘we all know child separation is bad and should not happen, so there’s no reason to debate it’ or something. Seriously. Even 30 seconds of Tim Ryan spouting platitudes is nauseating. The worst part is that responses to a question framed in that way lend themselves to easy applause lines. But it's not even sincere applause, it feels like it's at least partially out of obligation because no one wants to be caught not clapping for treating migrant children humanely.
48min – Savannah Guthrie complains that she had to ask the same question to multiple candidates because they didn’t actually answer it, but also didn’t bother pressing them to answer the question. It should be a ten second follow up! Get them on the record at not answering a question, like you just did with Beto. I'm still confused with Beto's whiff about the tax rates, because it wasn't like the marginal tax rate debate was in some corner of the public discourse. It was mainstream news for a week!
51min – Klobuchar’s on her fourth straight Trump-related answer. Unfortunately her strategy has gotten five straight candidates to also give Trump-related answers, peaking with Gabbard invoking Trump's name as a way to dodge a question.
53min – Why did they all get switched out hockey sub style? Were there too many moderators just like there were too many candidates? And why did they have a weird back-and-forth like they were Hobbs and Shaw? We’ve now gone to Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, who were inexplicably chosen over just Rachel Maddow or just Chuck Todd. Todd opens by saying they will be talking about guns and climate and a lot more, but that not all candidates will get a chance to weigh in on every issue. Why the fuck not? How does that make any kind of sense? Why is it important to hear from John Delaney about the gun show loophole, but not from John Hickenlooper on a carbon tax? Why wouldn’t you just have fewer topics and give everyone a chance to discuss?!
62min – Tim Ryan forces his way into the gun conversation with a salient point regarding the mental health of children and how it can manifest in school shootings. To hammer the point home about useful statistics, Ryan brought up how 90% of school shooters shoot up their own school, which is a powerful thing that everyone can unfortunately understand. Now, I have no idea whether that number is true because there's no fucking fact checking, but it doesn't matter because the point works.
64min – Klobuchar hits on something important, that gun buyback programs are not coercive but voluntary, but spends 5 seconds on that before moving on to her Uncle Dick. Or maybe it was her uncle's dick. I'm out on Klobuchar. Throw a binder at me. I don't care.
67min – Back-to-back candidates (de Blasio and Booker) both use some of their time to talk about guns even though Maddow has moved on to the Supreme Court, which is one of the things that makes this such a rough watch. As an organizer, you have to pick one way and go with it. Either reduce the number of topics so no one feels left out of a given conversation, or penalize candidates who talk about something entirely unrelated to the question that was just asked. de Blasio also hilariously mentions that he has a black son, a point that I'm hoping Booker responds to either by mentioning that he himself is a black son, or that he plans to have a black son with his girlfriend ROSARIO DAWSON.
70min – Warren gives her first non-answer of the night as she fails to explain how she would deal with the Senate controlled by a re-elected Mitch McConnell. Again, it's a dumb question so we can blame Chuck Todd here, because no one truly has a plan to deal with McConnell. Cocaine Mitch will not deal with anyone sitting on the stage. But if you want a politically-good-sounding answer, that's not hard either – say that you will host public debates with McConnell and any other Senator who opposes your plan, and they can either prove their cowardice by not showing up, or I'll expose them for being ignorant in front of the entire country. Also, I think Jay Inslee's hand is permanently frozen in the upright position.
72min – Maddow asks an abhorrent question, "does your plan save Miami?" What? What is going on? Why was this question asked to a presidential candidate? Could we not be any more specific? Nothing specific about the cons of a carbon tax or cap and trade?
77min – It's possible that the camera operator didn't know who Tim Ryan was, considering that they just panned past him over to Julian Castro before abruptly shifting back. Ryan delivers yet another rousing, meaningless platitude that earns some applause, so it was probably the right idea to skip past him. It would be cool to have an interactive stream of the debate where you could pick your candidate to watch even if they're not currently speaking, so you could see Booker's reaction to Beto speaking Spanish. They do this for basketball where you can follow a specific player as they run around a court, so it can't be that hard. And if you can't figure that out, put the candidates' names on the podiums! This is common sense, guys.
90min – Todd solicits one-word answers about what each candidate considers to be the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States, and then DOESN'T ASK ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT IT? It's meaningless! If you just want to know policy positions, you can give voters an Excel spreadsheet of everyone's views. A debate, by definition, is to challenge said views. Ask Klobuchar why she considers Iran a nuclear threat but not North Korea. Ask de Blasio why he doesn't consider China's economic influence to be greater than Russia's electoral interference. Ask something!!! Please!
97min – For some reason they brought back all the moderators after the commercial break to ask the complicated question of… closing arguments. Not to sound like a broken record, but this debate sounds like a broken record. They're giving 45 seconds to each candidate, meaning that each one will take about a minute, so that's 10 minutes utterly wasted on substance-less monologuing. As you'd expect, only Warren says something that's even remotely interesting, talking about how she went to a $50 per semester commuter college because her family didn't have the money to pay for anything better, and that this was a concrete example of how government works.
2min – The opening question goes to Bernie, which is an interesting choice since he's not the frontrunner according to the polls. Bernie starts off by not answering the question, instead delving into his 'political revolution' stump speech. Savannah Guthrie, who was probably the best moderator from last night, continues her hot streak by making Bernie answer (which to his credit, he does).
4min – Biden gives us yet another stump speech that was long enough to make people forget that Guthrie asked him about his 'nothing will fundamentally change' comment to donors. Ugh. Seriously, cut their mics. On that note, can we cut the audiences' mics as well? Or put them behind a soundproof barrier? Not only is it incredibly annoying to get constant cheers, but it encourages candidates to try and play the crowd and favor generalizations that will earn them applause.
5min – Kamala gets somewhat of a softball to open, as she's asked about whether Democrats have an obligation to explain how they will pay for everything they propose. Duh. What a waste of a question.
7min – John Hickenlooper aka the LOOP said that he's a scientist, so of course I had to go and check that. The first line of his Wikipedia page says that he's a politician and businessman, but he does have a Master's in geology, although he hasn't apparently practiced it since 1986. It would be funny if the moderators challenged him on this, or at least had someone in their ear telling them this stuff. But that makes too much sense, so he'll probably be able to get away with it pretty easily.
14min – Jose Diáz's confusion at Yang's value added tax did seem a bit costly. Yang probably won't get too much mic-time throughout the debate, so his fast-talking is defensible, but it seemed like he crammed just a bit too much into his 45 seconds. It's not his fault, because no one candidate be expected to explain the complexities of universal basic income (a relatively new idea in the public discourse) in such a short time. And it sucks, because the it's a good idea that happens to be a wedge – no other candidate has proposed anything like it. It would have been interesting to see Harris debate her Lift Act with Yang's UBI, but that's obviously too much to ask for.
16min – Swalwell throws SHOTS at Biden, who calmly smiles and waits his turn. Biden's smile is disarmingly effective, despite Swalwell's impassioned plea to pass the torch. In his hodgepodge response of policies, he actually throws out an interesting one: freezing the student debt of those making $25,000 or less, but of course he just steamrolls onto the next thing instead of taking the time to emphasize that. You might notice a trend – candidates who spend a lot of time fleshing out a single idea (think Julian Castro with section 1325) seem to get a better overall reaction.
20min – Gillibrand quickly shuts off Michael Bennett with a decisive "MY TURN!" It lines up beautifully with Gillibrand's I-want-to-speak-to-the-manager haircut.
26min – Even though the crowd seems to be behind Bernie's Medicare-For-All pitch, I still haven't heard any rationale from him (or any other M4A supporters) as to why it's more effective than having a public option. Holt's follow-up regarding the national implementation was actually a good question, and another one that Bernie didn't answer. Bernie's position here is tenuous. The reason people love him is because he's maintained the same values and the same high-level policy positions for decades now, to the point that he would be the overwhelming favorite (as a thought leader on progressivism) in any ordinary non-Trump primary. But that's not where we are right now, and Bernie's irritation at having to deal with candidates who only recently adopted his now-mainstream views is palpable.
33min – Biden's overall strategy is interesting. He was given time for a moderator mistake, but then launched into his usual confused spiel about everything he wants to do. He seems somewhat unsure of himself, as if his mouth is going faster than his brain, evidenced by how he just cut himself off at the time limit. Again, there were some interesting tidbits in there like throwing insurance company executives in jail (!), but it got lost in the totality of what he said.
41min – Interesting point by Williamson regarding American foreign policy in Central America affecting immigration now. Sure she seems cooky, and probably doesn't belong anywhere near a presidential debate, but she's had a couple noteworthy lines.
42min – Buttigieg somewhat contradicts himself when it comes to family separation. Castro's bit about repealing Section 1325 from last night spurred a raise-your-hand question from the moderators about the exact issue today, and several candidates said they would indeed decriminalize border crossings, Buttigieg among them. Irritatingly, he said that this is the basis upon which family separation is legally enacted (true), but that under his presidency you wouldn't have it anyway (also true). So then… what's the point of repealing it then? So that a future president can't do it? I would think it's consensus that only a Trump-esque president would do something like this, so why does it matter that it's enshrined in law? Why is Julian Castro driving the questions in a presidential debate?
48min – Kamala has a very effective fuck-you-let-me-talk stance to the moderator. It actually depends on which moderator is trying to cut someone off; Holt and Diáz's voice aren't enough to overpower Kamala's, but Guthrie's voice (had she been the one in charge at that moment) would have been around the same pitch. It certainly helps you make your case (and helps in the highlight reel) when it looks like you're making your point calmly without someone else getting in the way.
1hr – Buttigieg gets his toughest test in the form of a direct question regarding police and race relations in his city, and answers it as best he could. Biden could learn a thing from Buttigieg, in that actually apologizing for something can make you sympathetic and relatable, although conventional political wisdom will say that doing so makes you look weak. Buttigieg really does have an Obama-lite quality to him (lite in that he's literally lighter in both skin tone and probably weight than Obama), apparent in the eloquence of his words and the slight use of the right hand for momentum. The only bit of humor in this exchange was the absolute death stare that Buttigieg gave the interjecting Swalwell. Really a great job by the cameraman to capture that moment live. It's unfortunate that Williamson's rambling deprived us of a prolonged standoff.
1hr 2min – Kamala once again flexing her shut-the-fuck-up card by claiming that she has a right to speak about race as the only person of color on stage (which *squints at notes* seems to check out), getting Chuck Todd to physically recoil as if he had been struck. Maddow acquiesces and gives her 30 seconds, and Kamala responds with a small smile that notifies the entire room that she's going to take about as long as she needs. I didn't expect it to take an hour for us to get to the Biden-segregationist bit, but here we are. Plot twist at the end of Harris' little monologue: "and that little girl… was me." WHAT. For the record, her answer ended up taking a minute and 46 seconds.
1hr 5min – Biden's already stumbling over his own words, which at this point just seems to be a design flaw. I haven't seen him once give an answer as cleanly as Buttigieg or Harris, or even Williamson for that matter. Harris even tries giving him an out, extending a lifeline by offering the chance to apologize for supporting busing. Biden, in character, completely fucks up his response saying, "I did not oppose busing, what I opposed was busing ordered by the Department of Education." This is where being specific goes wrong – unlike Castro's Section 1325 explanation which was insightful and indicative of his education on the subject, Biden's answer comes across as just semantic gymnastics. It's worse because of the buck-stops-here answer Buttigieg gave barely five minutes ago, and because there were so many different ways he could have taken that. He could have offered a pseudo-defense, arguing that he only opposed forced or mandatory busing, or that busing predominantly benefited white students and not black students, but that he's since changed his view. Or he could have taken responsibility and just said he was wrong. But the way he chose to go was an argument for… states' rights? Just horrible. An almost irrelevant point: Harris, who routinely claims Oakland to be her home, let slip that she grew up in Berkeley.
1hr 14min – Bernie makes a slightly unclear case about the Supreme Court, saying that he does not believe in court-packing but he would like to rotate justices through lower courts. I would imagine that he is implying that justices would have term limits, but it would have been nice to get that clarified on the spot (thanks, Chuck Todd). Also, why does he support one and not the other?
1hr 20min – Maddow says a sentence that no one has ever said in history, "I want to bring Governor Hickenlooper in on this." Why? No one wants to hear from the LOOP, except on which toothpaste he doesn't use. It's been a full hour since he mentioned he was a scientist, and he does so here again. It's a personal pet peeve when people say they're going to put money into science and research, because that could mean anything. What science? What do you want to study? Aren't you a scientist?
1hr 27min – Swalwell's annoying ass inexplicably brings up the "pass the torch" line again, because it went so great for him the first time around. Ugh. Why is he on stage? Chuck Todd asks another great *eyeroll* question about the candidates' first priority in office, which several candidates rightly push back on. It seems dumb that you can supposedly only get one thing done at a time. Can't we multitask? And why ask them to answer in just a couple words when you know they're not going to do that? Cut the mics!
1hr 34 min – Maddow read a direct quote to Bernie about his belief that gun legislation should be left to the states, he claimed it was a mischaracterization, Maddow emphasized that it was a quote, and there was no follow up.
1hr 43min – Swalwell with another corny line about breaking up with Russian and making up with NATO. I don't get how people still think that basic rhyme schemes will get them applause or political points, and in this case it got neither. Isn't Swalwell supposed to be the young candidate? He's supposed to know it's not cool, bro.
1hr 48min – Closing statement time. Swalwell does it yet AGAIN, saying that when he's not changing diapers, he's changing Washington, and that the diapers smell better. Real funny, dude. It wasn't even that great of a line, and you don't get brownie points for doing what you're supposed to do as a parent. Fuck off. Magically, Hickenlooper now decided that he's a small business owner, not a scientist. Harris is really freaking good at this; while every candidate is trying to ram as many words as they can into 45 seconds, she takes her time and speaks slowly. I guess sometimes less is indeed more.