The Democrats’ Debates Were Disappointing, and Yet…

Candidates in Second Democratic Presidential Debates 2020

My Oh My! So much drama—even attacks on No Drama Obama!

Let me state at the outset that I had never intended to become so overtly partisan in this blog. I even wrote a post a while back explaining why I wouldn’t discuss the elephant in the room (President Trump) because so much stuff was appearing elsewhere, and I wanted to focus on finding our common ground.

My overarching goal remains, and in my own way, I’m still trying to do that.

When the President is an incumbent, it’s assumed the election is a referendum on him. But now that this President has made blatantly racist attacks on people of color a feature of his daily rants, I believe the 2020 election is a referendum on us.

Who are we as Americans? What kind of country do we look forward to, and how devoted are we to working toward a more perfect union?

Will we give our seal of approval to this man for another four years? I know some of you reading this post are Republicans with varying degrees of support for Trump. I’m not attacking you personally or trying to change your minds. 

Rather, I’m assuming that most American voters—Democrats, Independents, and growing numbers of “Never Trump” Republicans—are seeking a reasonable alternative to Trump and want to see Washington functioning again to pass common-sense legislation in their behalf.

I believe/hope that people are eager to denounce him at the ballot box, proving that he doesn’t represent the vast majority, and that we are seeking leadership that unites us in hope and common purpose, rather than divides us in hatred and fear.

In that spirit, I offer you my thoughts after viewing the second round of debates—and I’ll explain why I found them sorely lacking.

It’s still early, but I saw little inspiration among the 20 candidates on the stage in Detroit. Part of the problem, I believe, was CNN’s approach.

It was clear that CNN wanted a food fight: the questions were designed to encourage candidates to attack one another. I didn’t think that was good TV. I also thought it was poor broadcast journalism and unhelpful for educating the public.

Admittedly, it’s tough to stage interesting debates among 10 candidates, and I felt bad about how little time each person had to make her/his points. 

But the questions were also unrevealing in eliciting what kind of Presidents they would be. 

Healthcare is a critical issue; it was largely responsible for the Democrats’ winning the House in 2018. Americans want to know they will have decent health care that covers preexisting conditions, is within their means, and is dependable, regardless of their circumstances. 

The discussions were sometimes too wonky and confusing for viewers and at the same time often inadequate, leaving out important issues, such as cost to taxpayers.

I wish each candidate had given this answer: “We’ll bring the best minds together to come up with the most realistic affordable plan that covers the most people possible.” 

In other words, we’ll progress beyond Obamacare without gutting it, adding the public option that was originally intended, and regulating both the insurance companies and Big Pharma.

Many other countries have private insurance companies as part of their healthcare mix; they simply regulate them more aggressively than we do.

Medicare for all vs “Anything less lets insurance companies ruin America” is to me an unnecessarily divisive issue.

I think improving Obamacare would satisfy most Americans—without frightening them.

And how quickly people have forgotten how hard that battle was—that passing the legislation was a “big f—–g deal,” in former VP Joe Biden’s memorable words. More about all-important processes appears below. 

If the public option works as intended, we’ll get to Medicare for all but won’t immediately send our economy into a tailspin.

Healthcare is now about 18% of our GDP. We need a smooth transition to the next stage. I haven’t heard any Medicare for all candidate discuss this point.

But most importantly, the emphasis should be on the fact that every Democratic candidate believes that healthcare is a right and supports expanded coverage, while Trump and the Republicans have been decimating Obamacare and, in all the years they claimed to find an alternative, have not done so.

It is simply not an article of faith in the Republican Party as it is among Democrats. Quite the contrary. 

As the terrible mass shootings mount up, I can’t write this post today without including sensible gun legislation. This is another issue where the majority of the public agrees, and so do all the Democratic candidates.

Not so the Republicans in Congress and the President. And despite his palliative words after the most recent shootings, since Trump took office, we’ve had a substantial uptick in domestic terrorism. We know white nationalists claim him as one of their own. If he cared to change that image (and possibly reduce the carnage), he would change his rhetoric.

With gun safety legislation, again, process is critical, as we’ll discuss below.

Foreign policy, which is probably the most important aspect of a President’s efforts, and is currently fraught with dangers that Trump both inherited and has created, took up a mere five minutes of the 2-1/2 hour debate.

I am puzzled why, just shortly after the Mueller testimony, CNN felt that discussing the role of Russia was barely worth mentioning. And there were no discussions of Iran, North Korea, Syria, and other potential hot spots.

Since a number of the candidates have had little or no direct involvement in this essential component of being President, it behooves the next debate organizers to build in adequate time and questions that reveal the candidates’ world views and thought processes. 

I was impressed, for example, with Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s stating that he voted against entering the war in Iraq when he was a member of Congress. (He took Vice President Biden to task for voting for it.) 

Inslee said the arguments for war were unconvincing. In an interview after the debate, when he was asked why so many Democrats voted to go to war, he explained that in the post-9/11 environment, the drumbeats for war were very difficult to withstand. But he did withstand them—a fact that to me says a lot about the man.

Speaking of Inslee brings us to climate change, which he has made the focus of his campaign —though not as a single issue: he has tied it to economics, undue burdens on poor and minority communities, and other important topics.

He has thought and studied the issue extensively and is clearly the candidate most deeply committed to quick concrete actions to confront climate change.

And while it’s good that every Democratic candidate accepts the scientists’ warnings and promises to act, I find his commitment especially comforting. 

One extremely critical issue hasn’t come up in either debate: the judiciary. 

I am quoting extensively here from two articles. One, by Dahlia Lithwick, is titled “Democrats Still Haven’t Learned Their Lesson About the Courts.”

The other, which she cites, written by Ezra Klein, is “Pete Buttigieg had the most important answer at the Democratic debate.”

I find them both important in terms of those critical process matters I referred to earlier, and I hope you’ll read them in their entirety.

Let’s start with Klein’s article in Vox. Here’s where reality lies—beyond fine policy ideas and whether they’re progressive enough.

“South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg gave the single most important answer at Tuesday’s Democratic debate.

“It came after a lengthy section in which the assembled candidates debated different health care plans that have no chance of passing given the composition of the US Senate and then debated decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings, which they also don’t have the votes to do, and then debated a series of gun control ideas that would swiftly fall to a filibuster and, even if they didn’t, would plausibly be overturned by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

“That’s when Buttigieg spoke up:

‘[This is] the conversation that we have been having for the last 20 years. Of course, we need to get money out of politics, but when I propose the actual structural democratic reforms that might make a difference — end the Electoral College, amend the Constitution if necessary to clear up Citizens United, have DC actually be a state, and depoliticize the Supreme Court with structural reform — people look at me funny, as if this country was incapable of structural reform.

‘This is a country that once changed its Constitution so you couldn’t drink and changed it back because we changed our minds, and you’re telling me we can’t reform our democracy in our time. We have to or we will be having the same argument 20 years from now.’”

Klein continued:

“So far, I’ve found Buttigieg’s campaign underwhelming on policy. But where he’s clearly leading the field is his emphasis on structural reform. Buttigieg isn’t the only candidate with good ideas on this score — Elizabeth Warren and Jay Inslee have been strong on this too — but he’s the only candidate who consistently prioritizes the issue.

“The reality is Democrats are debating ever more ambitious policy in a political system ever less capable of passing ambitious policy — and ever more stacked against their policies, in particular.

Their geographic disadvantage in Congress is only getting worse, Republicans control the White House and the Senate despite receiving fewer votes for either, and an activist conservative Supreme Court just gutted public sector unions and green-lit partisan gerrymandering.

“Policy isn’t Democrats’ problem. They’ve got plenty of plans. Some of them are even popular. What they don’t have is a political system in which they can pass and implement those plans.

“Buttigieg, to his credit, has a clear theory on this. When I interviewed him in April, he argued that ‘any decisions that are based on an assumption of good faith by Republicans in the Senate will be defeated.’

“The hope that you can pass laws through bipartisan compromise is dead. And that means governance is consistently, reliably failing to solve people’s problems, which is in turn radicalizing them against government itself.”

Now let’s briefly look at Lithwick’s article in Slate:

“We now know that a single Trump judge can gut the Affordable Care Act, or permit a wall to be built on the Southern border, or try to end Roe v. Wade.

This isn’t a thing to contemplate after a Democrat wins the presidential election. It is, with every passing day, the reason to doubt whether any Democrat can win the presidential election ever again. And the same is true for the Senate, and for the House. Which is why it has to be a first-order discussion, not last. 

“As Klein wrote: ‘This is what Buttigieg gets: To make policy, you have to fix the policymaking process. Some of the other candidates pay that idea lip service, when they get pushed on it. But he’s the one who places that project at the center of his candidacy.’

Lithwick concluded:

“The Democrats on the debate stage are embarrassed to be caught out without answers to questions about battles that their constituents cannot afford for them to continue to lose. Democratic voters showed up in 2018 in part because of their horror at losing the Supreme Court.

Sure, it’s embarrassing that Democrats have been badly outplayed by Mitch McConnell, who follows no norm or judicial ideal beyond ruthless pursuit of power.

“But it should be more embarrassing that reforming the courts has been deemed too hard to warrant a single debate question. By all means let’s talk about Trump and impeachment and ‘kitchen table issues’ and the environment; they all matter.

But the fact that the machinery of justice has been captured by a monied minority means that democracy itself is on the ballot. That should matter enough to warrant a question.”

All this is why I found the debates so disappointing. While the candidates were attacking each other—and President Obama, through Joe Biden—and discussing their plans for what they’ll accomplish once they become the President, for the most part they didn’t talk about these huge, powerful forces at all. 

And this is where their energy—and ours—is essential.

I intend to vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination, hoping that person is sufficiently inspiring to energize a broad swath of diverse constituents.

I think the divisions between moderates and progressives figure less in most voters’ minds than does their sense of the decency, competence, integrity, and leadership skills of the individual they’d like to see in the White House—especially now. 

Thus, I believe it is essential that we try to defeat Trump with the largest possible mandate, demonstrating total rejection of his racism—as well as his corruption, incompetence, divisiveness, and unwillingness to protect the US from those who have directly threatened our elections and are continuing to do so. 

But clearly that’s not enough. It is so important that we educate ourselves and make our voices heard about these structural issues that are making it difficult, if not impossible, to get anything substantive done in Washington.

Democrats need to take the Presidency, House, and Senate, and then focus on the critical changes needed—before a minority party eliminates any chance of the majority’s will being enacted. 

These are large challenges,  but while some of the candidates talk about the need for “Big Ideas,” we need to let them all know what those big ideas must include. We made it to the moon 50 years ago, you’ll recall. We can do this.

And we must.


19 thoughts on “The Democrats’ Debates Were Disappointing, and Yet…

  1. That was interesting Annie….and certainly presents aspects we don’t see on CNN. I’ve often wondered why things never get passed in the house….but have to admit as a Canadian I don’t really understand your electoral system with the house and senate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Joni—

      I found those two articles quite compelling: they pointed to important forces too few of us have been thinking about. As to your not understanding our electoral system as a Canadian, I think that’s because it’s become totally dysfunctional. At this point, well over 100 bills have passed the House on issues on which a majority of Americans agree—but they aren’t even allowed to be discussed in the Senate due to the man who’s now furious people are calling him “Moscow Mitch” because he sure doesn’t seem to be acting in America’s interests. So you’re definitely not the only one scratching your head in bewilderment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Democrats need to take the Presidency, House, and Senate, and then focus on the critical changes needed—before a minority party eliminates any chance of the majority’s will being enacted.”

    I recall that not ten years ago this was what we had. With Harry Reid showing Mitch McConnell how the game is played in the big leagues.

    It seems to me that the real issue is that we are having an existential crisis with two very different views on how society and government should be structured. There is a fairly even match in size of the two sides, unlike in, say, the 30 years from FDR through Johnson. When I hear Mayor Pete talk about “structural reform” of the courts, it translates to “we can’t get a convincing, permanent majority under the rules we used to win under so let’s go all FDR and pack the Supreme Court so our side can rule forever.”

    I continue to believe that America is, on the whole, a center to center-right country with loud voices from both fringes trying to exert more influence than they really have.

    To your main point about the debates, this was how I felt 4 years ago with a crazy number of candidates, none of whom was really singing my song. Or that the most sensible were not able to get attention. And look how that turned out.


    1. Hi, JP–

      Not surprisingly, we disagree on a basic premise: you see our country as center-right; I see it as center-left. On the vast majority of issues, from gun safety laws to health care to immigration to reproductive rights, more people support the Democrats’ positions than they do the Republicans. And there’s the matter of Hillary Clinton’s receiving 3 million more votes than Donald Trump.

      And it seems clear to many, including me, that the Republicans’ efforts at gerrymandering and voter suppression, the former now upheld by an obviously partisan Supreme Court, have been done with the conviction that if immigration continues apace and minority people are able to cast their votes, the Republicans will not again achieve control through our democratic (small d) methods. And those efforts, I believe, are un-American.

      I found this the most important line in Dahlia Lithwick’s article: “But the fact that the machinery of justice has been captured by a monied minority means that democracy itself is on the ballot.” I was profoundly affected by Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money, about the behind the scenes machinations of the Koch brothers and others. This effort has been years in the making, and the Democrats have admittedly been asleep at the wheel, but we have seen in our lifetime that the Supreme Court has become obviously supportive of corporations over individuals and of positions that do not represent the vast majority of Americans. Citizens United is a blatant case in point.

      When I first heard Pete Buttigieg talking about reforming the Supreme Court, I recoiled, thinking of Roosevelt’s packing the Court. But then I thought of Mitch McConnell’s outrageously stealing the seat that is rightfully Merrick Garland’s (and there was clear evidence Garland would have been easily confirmed), and I realize that Harry Reid was actually responding to the hardball that the Republicans had been engaged in for years. McConnell has simply shown us how blatant and shameless one can be in defying the will of the people. So if the Democrats can use Constitutional methods to enhance our democracy, I’m all for Buttigieg’s approach. McConnell doesn’t bother with such niceties.

      I just hope there’s time for the Democrats to redress some of these grievous miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile, Trump continues to place judges–many far right and totally unqualified–on the federal courts. And then there’s the creeping state-by-state efforts to rewrite the Constitution, which I feel obligated to write about quite soon.

      I really want to get back to writing about some fun stuff, like reading obituaries (I’ll respond to your recent post shortly), but these thorny matters keep clogging my brain.


      1. Yes, I kinda figured we would disagree on some things here. The thing on judges – that has been one area where I have really thought Trump has excelled. You call his picks partisan hacks, but I have found them to be quality picks (albeit ones who hew to more traditional views of what law is and should be). And this Supreme Court has not broken out into the kinds of reliable blocs everyone expected to see, so there has been more independent thinking going on than some expected.

        I don’t think Dems have to worry about the Koch brothers – good heavens, with Hollywood, Big Tech, and bug business falling all over itself to prove its “woke” bona fides (with Tom Steyer thrown in for fun) you guys are rolling in dough even without the public sector unions.

        I will admit that I have considered whether my outlook on a center-right country (probably more center than right, but it tips just a bit that way) may be something that is changing with demographics. The young tend more to the left, but then again history tends to move many to the right as they get older. It will be interesting to watch.

        And is the right suppressing votes or keeping the left from packing polls with non-elligible voters? We have all heard the jokes about the ways of big-city Democratic machines (“My grandfather voted in every election in Philadelphia until he was 106. Although he died at 68.”). 🙂 And even small towns – I recall reading about an old small-town schoolhouse that got torn down, and they found the insides of the walls stuffed with old ballots the party in power didn’t want to count. I guess it all depends on your perspective. I don’t think either is a good thing, btw.


      2. The judges issue in a number of cases has been deemed so by the ABA (which I realize may not be an org that you agree with, but tends to deliver mainstream opinions). The Supreme Ct decisions to date have for the most part not shown differences on cases of significance., eg, gerrymandering. The Koch bros et al have already done huge damage on environmental matters and are proceeding fast with a movement intended to rewrite the Constitution. As for voter suppression, we have gone over this matter before, and recent history has shown that the only demonstrable case is in North Carolina, where there will be a re-election due to the Republicans’ blatant fraud; the rest is a canard that I should think someone of your intelligence would no longer be furthering. If you need impartial references, I’ll provide them.


    2. Not sure why you think America is a center-right country? In 1992 the more liberal candidate won the popular vote. In 1996 the more liberal candidate won the popular vote. In 2000 the more liberal candidate won the popular vote. In 2004 the incumbent more conservative candidate won the popular vote. In 2008 the more liberal candidate won the popular vote. In 2012 the more liberal candidate won the popular vote. In 2016 the more liberal candidate won the popular vote.

      When Buttigieg talks about structural change this is the problem he is addressing. In a liberal democracy the system is rigged so the more conservative candidate wins, even though the people want liberal ideas. The key issue is that the least populated states have an inflated vote compared to their actual size.

      A separate issue has nothing to do with the US Constitution, it is the rules of the House and Senate. Those rules give massive power to 2 people, Moscow Mitch MConnell and Nancy Pelosi. These two people are only elected by a few hundred thousand people in one district or one state. How can one person hold up laws for the entire nation? That is another issue that needs to be addressed but can only be addressed by the House and Senate rules committees. And those in power, whether Dem or GOP, hate to give up power in the name of democracy or fairness.


      1. Joseph, I trust you realize that I said we’re a center-left country; I was responding to my respondent JP, who said we’re center-right.

        Your point on the House and Senate rules is well-taken, but gets back to the dark money issue, which, in turn, takes us back to the courts. And your argument doesn’t account for the differences between Nancy Pelosi, who has always attended to the people’s business and has been a stellar leader, in my opinion—and Moscow Mitch. You can disagree with Pelosi on impeachment, but her life has been one of progressive public service, with passage of Obamacare, etc, to her credit.


      2. Which Democrats have won since FDR? Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama. Aside from Obama (who was a unique case as the first mainstream black candidate) every single one was the more conservative choice among those in the primaries. They ran as conservatives with consciences. They may have been more liberal than the Republicans they ran against, but they were not Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern or Paul Tsongas.

        In your close races Gore and Hillary were lackluster candidates. As was Nixon in 60 when he won the popular vote yet lost. Appealing candidates win elections.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’m not sure any of the Democratic Presidents ran as conservatives, but Clinton certainly did that triangulation thing. I do agree with your final sentence! And I would be very comfortable voting for/ working for a candidate whose views are more centrist than mine if she/he demonstrated the basic leadership qualities that I noted in this post.


      4. JP. You can try to explain it away if you like. But the facts are this. In every election since 1992 the more liberal candidate won the popular vote, with the exception of 2004. That is an historical fact. When faced with the choice of candidates, the people chose the more liberal of the two. The presidency is the only office in the US where the candidate who gets the fewest votes can win. That is a structural problem that should be corrected.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. And that has happened against the backdrop of a decades-long Republican effort to demonize government, leading to the type of fuzzy thinking demonstrated during the healthcare debate by the man who said: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

        In 2004, there were strong indications that Jeb Bush delivered Florida to his brother with assistance from Katherine Harris, the clearly political Secretary of State. That was also the election decided by the Supreme Court, with Sandra Day O’Connor delivering the deciding vote, which she later publicly regretted.

        But times change, and I reiterate that the Republicans’ awareness of the changing, more liberal electorate is the force behind voter suppression of people of color, students, and others, and gerrymandering efforts.

        One more thing: we’ll never know what the true disparity in the popular vote would have been in 2016 without the separate interventions of James Comey and the Russians. And I must amend my agreement with JP about the most appealing candidate winning. Most people did not feel that way in 2016.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. “And I must amend my agreement with JP about the most appealing candidate winning. Most people did not feel that way in 2016.”

        Wait – there was an appealing candidate in 2016? This is the first I’m hearing about this. 🙂


  3. Yes, Annie. I was responding to JP’s idea that we are a conservative country. The voting patterns do no bear that out.
    Regarding Pelosi and McConnell. I make no value judgment (although I do call him Moscow Mitch) about their politics. Only about the system that gives too much power to only 2 people. Whether I agree with her or not, one person should not be able to determine which bills are voted on and which are left to die. It is not a matter of philosophy, but rather of the structure of democracy.


  4. I’m with you per Inslee on Iraq. I think that’s also key to why Obama beat Hillary in the 2008 primary. I think she had figured in 2003 that we’d plow through Iraq rather quickly and that the future would look back on those who voted against the war as the foolish and spineless ones. That sure backfired.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Inslee also voted to ban assault weapons when he was in Congress, knowing he might well lose his seat for that vote, which he did. He said during the debate that “We need to remove the white nationalist from the White House,” becoming the first to call out trump so clearly. He just put out a 10-point plan concerning gun safety and white nationalists. I think he’s already shown real leadership, yet he hasn’t yet qualified for the September debates requiring 130,000 small donations. I hope everyone reading this will consider such a donation, even if you prefer other candidates, because his presence is, I believe, valuable to all.
      Gary, thanks for your visit and comment.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Hello and thanks for this post which somehow slipped by me in the constant stream of guests I’ve had this summer. One thing I’ll tell you is that your commentary provides interesting conversation at the dinner table where all sorts, of late, gather — including die-hard Republicans — so thanks for the careful thinking! So much to discuss and opinions are so sharp. Thanks for doing the work on it. I feel smart reading and quoting you.

    Liked by 1 person

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