A Midsummer Night’s Ream: July Debates Recap

Toby Muresianu
Aug 1 · 8 min read
Candidates before the Great Cull

All 2 nights and 20 candidates in one supercharged recap because, well, I didn’t have time to post my first recap to Medium this morning but want to keep up my significant-to-me streak of writing up every debate on here. If you’re only interested in some nights or people, just scroll down and peep the bold text!

Night 1

Pretty boring especially in the middle. Having 10 politicians, five of whom are forgettable and doomed and only one of which is Marianne Williamson, just isn’t very entertaining.

It was an interesting experiment with actually forcing politicians to stick to time, as they ruthlessly cut people off, didn’t give people much time to respond, and avoided the freeform brawl that has happened in the past. But — is this what viewers actually want? Maybe not, but maybe there is just no good outcome from having two 10-person, multiple-hour debates. In the future, they should cut it off at like the top 8.

It makes me skeptical that these things will really move the needle much — I don’t know how many people will see a lot of it or change their opinion based on a 30 second response here or there. You end up glazing over like it’s a high school geometry lecture last period in June.

Moderators were criticized a bit for presenting tough questions that they might get from Republicans, but I didn’t really mind. It might have been good to ask more open-ended ones to let them explain themselves more.

Anyway, here’s how people did:

Bernie Sanders: was Bernie. Did good job of being Bernie. If you don’t know his platform at this point: “other countries have health care, why can’t we? It’s billionaires and corporations.” well, that’s it. Got a good audience response.

Elizabeth Warren: was similar to Bernie, delivered well to her crowd on a populist message that is a little more thoughtful, got a good audience response.

Pete Buttigieg: Did very well, combining probably the most intelligent answers with crisp and compassionate delivery. He is my favorite. Also got a good response. I thought his idea to make presidential military authorizations sunset after a few years was interesting and a good step to actually giving that power back to congress where it is supposed to reside.

Marianne Williamson: Actually had some of the biggest responses of the night, by going big picture and talking about “why we are so sick” rather than medical insurance, the root causes of racial inequality, etc. That said, she has more vague questions and astrology-style diagnoses than actual policy prescriptions. She even owns this, saying that the election will not be won by policy or wonkiness — and though it hurts me deeply, she may be right. I wouldn’t be surprised if she grows in the polls — she is definitely running in her own lane, even if it is rainbow road.

Amy Klobuchar: Did very well and asserted herself more than in past debates but was probably, sadly, overshadowed by other candidates nonetheless. Didn’t seem to get much speaking time and wasn’t super memorable even if she had good answers.

John Delaney: got a shocking amount of screen time, perhaps because they wanted to use his more pragmatism-focused campaign as a contrast to Bernie and Warren’s. He seems to me to have among the smartest answers while being, tragically, horribly unlikeable. He has the face of a punching bag, a plastic smile, a tendency to glance around for no reason, and comes across as a scold for decrying Bernie’s medicare plan as an impossible promise. When he then makes points about increasing the EITC (the country’s biggest anti-poverty program) and taxing investment income like regular income which are good and important, people then call him a Republican to applause for wanting public private partnerships or solutions which don’t call for banning private insurance. As someone who would love a boring yet effective government, I think he’d be great in implementing the necessary services that governments should do.

Hickenlooper is also like Delaney. They probably bro-hug after the show. It is wholly unnecessary for both of them, or really either of them, to be on stage. Running for senate would be a better option.

Tim Ryan: is also like Delaney and Hickenlooper, but less smart and more rust belt. He is really into having a Chief Manufacturing Officer or something in the white house but it’s not clear what this would do besides manufacture another position.

Steve Bullock: is also like Tim Ryan, but got more screen time for unclear reasons. He should also be focused on state office. This was the first debate he qualified for, and hopefully the last.

Beto O’Rourke: sensing a pattern? He was kind of like Buttigieg-ish, but less well spoken and should be running for senate.

Night 2

This was overall a pretty good debate, or at least as good as you can get with 10 people. People fired shots but stuck to their time, and when (who else) De Blasio tried to rush in, Don Lemon shut him down. The crowd was into it and gave applause generously to all the candidates, making for a more exciting debate than the previous night.

Again a lot of people, some of them onstage, complained that questions tied into “Republican talking points” or that arguing over differences was what “Republicans wanted.” But…it’s a Democratic *debate.* I think there should be hard questions there, and I think there should be hard questions directed at Trump when he is onstage, and when he inevitably bitches and moans about unfairness I hope people remember they did not go easy on them.

Here’s how people did:

Biden: opened strong, with an opening statement targeting Trump that seemed presidential and an exchange with Kamala where he was succinct and delivered his attacks well within his time limit, forcing her to scramble and try to over-explain her shifting health care positions. It seemed like he was going to run away with it…and then he fell into doing the exact opposite, giving answers that rambled over his allotted time and then ending with “and, and, anyway.” He took a ton of attacks and basically responded by bear-hugging Obama, but was effectively called out for that by Booker to applause. He had some good moments, like when Gillibrand tried to have a Kamala moment by attacking him on gender issues that allowed him to remind people he was a single parent. But then in his closing statement he gaffed twice, warning that we couldn’t take “8 more years” of Trump and seeming to forget his own website. I don’t think age should be an issue, but it’s tough when you show signs of it. I don’t think he had as threatening a performance as after the first debate, but I like him as the most pragmatic candidate with a good shot of winning, so it’s a bummer to see him not make a strong case for himself. I would have liked to see him onstage with a strong populist like Warren, but he might be fortunate he wasn’t.

Kamala: if she doubled up on strong debate performances she could help vault up a notch, but I don’t think she did. She took some attacks from the left for her prosecutorial record and had some decent moments and some less-than moments that make it seem like she’s more likely to regress to the mean than be a standout (though she still has time; she’ll make the next debate and will have fewer competitors).

Booker: the leader among a group of second-tier candidates who had strong nights. He was energetic, emphatic and succinct. Biden responded to his attacks on supporting the ’94 crime bill with pointed attacks on his stop-and-frisk policies in Newark, but Biden’s attacks didn’t hit as hard — probably because he seemed flat while Booker seemed to relish the exchange and just have more credibility.

Yang: another second tier candidate who had a very strong night. He managed to both answer questions as they were asked and bring things back over and over to where the economy was heading with automation and his signature basic-income proposal. I’m not sold on it, but it made him come across as forward thinking and above the fray — particularly since he (uniquely?) was never attacked and did not attack others all night. He got consistent applause and closed with a convincing appeal to people sick of reality-show politics across the political spectrum and delivered the performance the #YangGang wanted after complaints that he didn’t get to speak in his first one.

Bennett: In a testament to how far automation has come, he seemed to have been replaced by a robot. Yet amazingly, despite his innate -1000 charisma, he did very well! He answered questions intelligently and with passion, and when asked why he — a middle aged white guy from the midwest — would be the best to solve racial inequality, he somehow golfed a tough pitch in the dirt over the fence with an emphatic and thoughtful response emphasizing education that got big applause. But that said — he’s not going to move the needle on his candidacy, and I hope like many of the mid-tier moderates he bows out soon. A decent showing in the debate may give him something to be proud of or help put him into consideration for a cabinet post or better office; close on a high note and move along. I suspect not making the next debate, when the criteria is tougher, will be the cue for many candidates to head for the exits.

Castro: Another solid second tier performance. I would strongly suspect he will be either a VP candidate or a cabinet secretary (as he was under Obama) if the Democrats win…or just return to Texas and be part of a young political dynasty with his brother.

Gillibrand: a decent (aside from the Biden exchange) showing that won’t move the needle; so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night (yes, I googled “auf Wiedersehen”).

De Blasio: Sucks. I would say he should spend more time in his district, but they don’t want him either. Stick to where you are most useful: getting pickles off the top shelf.

Gabbard: Delivered an anti-war message that seemed more out of 2008 than 2019. Got more speaking time than she should have by moderators going to her for every military question. Repeated bad arguments against international agreements like the TPP and NAFTA; when there is strong economic consensus in favor of free trade and Trump is bucking it with bad, dumb results I was hoping that Democrats were becoming the party of free trade, but sadly every one of them except Delaney is running from it to some degree or adopting the Trumpian line of “I’ll negotiate a better deal, I just won’t tell you what it is.” Biden came closest to accepting NAFTA and the TPP albeit with unspecified changes, again tying them back to Obama.

Inslee: Another solid second-tier-candidate performance, distinguished by wearing some sharp glasses (maybe this debate’s version of Yang not wearing a tie) and prioritizing climate change, which puts others in a tough spot — if it is an existential threat, we should treat it like one and prioritize it first, right? If Democrats win, I would not be surprised to see him heading the EPA or whatnot (was this whole thing just a group interview?).

Anyway, that’s it. This might have been long to read, but thank you — it was much longer to watch. Back next time for Round 3!

Toby Muresianu
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