Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Democratic Debate Analysis (First Night): CNN Decides What the Race Is About

Honest Graft was on vacation during the first pair of Democratic presidential debates last month, so this week's events are the first of the 2020 campaign that will receive recaps here on the blog. Perhaps it's worthwhile, then, to review my general perspective on debates before proceeding to discuss Tuesday night's proceedings.

• I tend to be skeptical of analysts' confident declarations of debate "winners" and "losers," because the standards by which such pronouncements are made are usually unclear and are often colored by previous preferences. However, a strong collective judgment among media figures about who did well or who committed a major gaffe can affect candidates' fortunes in important ways, regardless of the fairness of such evaluations.

• Debates can tell us important things beyond who won or lost. They help illustrate candidate strategy, internal party trends and developments, and media preoccupations. But most debates don't turn out to be dramatic "game-changers" in the race as a whole.

• As tools for voters to learn about candidates and make decisions about whom to support, debates are not entirely useless—but neither are they reliably helpful. Rather than adopting the common media theme that debates are sacred exercises in civic enlightenment, citizens should treat them more like the television productions that they are at heart. Television can be entertaining, but it's not reliably informative.

Now, on to a few takeaways from the first night's debate:

1. There was a chance that the random assignment of Sanders and Warren to the same debate stage this month would lead to a showdown between them, but that didn't happen. Instead, the most common dynamic was one in which both candidates were lumped in together as targets of criticism from more moderate rivals.

2. This dynamic didn't just naturally happen on its own; it was largely the consequence of CNN's choice of questions. The moderators, who displayed a curiously hostile tone throughout the evening, were clearly most interested in defining the race as a battle between ideological purity and electoral formidability—a frame to which they frequently returned. (CNN's post-debate coverage summarized the event by repeatedly displaying the chyron "Breaking News: Liberal and Moderate Democrats Clash in Detroit.") The moderators' behavior had the inevitable effect of minimizing the differences between Sanders and Warren, while making the two of them stand out dramatically from the rest of the field.

3. John Delaney, Steve Bullock, Tim Ryan, and John Hickenlooper all repeatedly accepted the moderators' invitations to make attacks against Warren and Sanders, but the short response times imposed by CNN (as low as 15 seconds in some cases) meant that these candidates didn't have as much of a chance to explain what made them, personally, the best alternative to the two leading lefties in the race. There's a long historical tradition of Democratic candidates distancing themselves from the left edge of their party—and convincing the Democratic electorate that they are smartly positioning themselves for the general election by doing so. But previous Democrats who have successfully employed this approach en route to the nomination have had some other quality that could excite the party's voters: impressive biography, youthful charisma, policy wonkery. Without an immediately obvious personal selling point, these candidates need to make a positive case for themselves as well, but the format was not well-suited to this objective.

4. Amy Klobuchar, interestingly, didn't really take the opportunity to join in the push against the left, despite her self-positioning as an electable midwesterner. (She preferred the popular moderate tactic of attacking the other party instead.) Klobuchar seems to be doing just well enough in polls and donations to qualify for the next debate in September, so she's not in imminent danger of being culled from the race, but as the resident of a neighboring state she'll need to make a big splash in Iowa or she'll be written off before the New Hampshire primary.

5. After (mostly) uniting around the ACA, the presidential wing of the Democratic Party is splintering again on the issue of health care, with substantive policy differences among candidates sometimes illustrated, and sometimes confusingly obscured, by the invocation of phrases like "Medicare for All." Whether or not Democratic primary voters consciously base their choice of candidate on the issue, the 2020 nomination contest will determine whether the party enters the general election on a platform of advocating the wholesale restructuring of the American health insurance system. A vote for Sanders or Warren as nominee is partially a bet that such a position is now viable in a national race.