The Unbearable Unfairness of Standing Out

Toby Muresianu
Sep 17, 2019 · 8 min read
The Top 10 Democratic Candidates. Not pictured: The Bottom 10

Years ago I watched a YouTuber predict Trump would win the 2016 election.

His reason?

In wrestling, the most interesting thing that can happen is what must happen. And everything is wrestling.

When I watched the debate last week, I was struck that there were 10 pretty good candidates for the job.

Pretty much all of them gave good, thoughtful, empathetic answers. I do not agree with them on everything, but they were.

Is that enough?

It won’t be for 9 of them. And it definitely won’t be for at least 4 or 5 of them.

Amy Klobuchar gave intelligent, empathetic responses. I mean, I think she did. Do I remember what she said about health care 6 minutes into a multi-hour debate with 10 other candidates?

No. No, I do not.

And so I wonder about the similar situations of the Cory Bookers, the Beto O’Rourkes, the Pete Buttigieges.

They didn’t screw up. They even had some good lines, got some applause or laughs.

But what does that get you? 5th place?

I’m more inclined to look at the widely-panned stunts —Andrew Yang giving away 120k to 10 families over a year, or Julian Castro’s (mistimed) attacks on Biden’s mental state — as shrewd, if not successful, moves.

Because those are the things that you remember, and talk about the next day.

And the more familiar you are, the more likeable you are. Or hateable. But not forgettable.

This was a debate where many people came with a clear plan and executed on it — for better or for worse. Candidates were generally respectful and got time to give complete answers, so it’s the debate we *said* we wanted — but maybe didn’t want to watch, based on how many recaps called it a “snoozefest.” You just can’t please everyone, especially in the media.

Here’s a candidate by candidate breakdown.

Joe Biden — Sigh. I’m broadly aligned with him, being moderate-leaning. I think people are underrating his appeal. That said, watching him onstage is like watching a drunk boxer who sometimes connects and sometimes punches himself in his face. Or like watching a 70 year old try to play touch football with…well, in this case, other 70 years olds who aren’t in mental decline.

His broad strokes were fine — he started with a fiery (and correct, in my opinion) attack on Bernie and Warren for not accounting for the cost of their plans. He defended a public option as the best way to universal health care, and ended with a powerful personal story (as did other candidates). But his good points were blunted by bumbling over words and in the middle, he had the now-notorious-among-people-who-pay-attention rambling response to a question on the legacy of slavery that somehow involved having parents play “the record player” for kids (Vox put out an explainer, because of course they did).

On the other hand, he took some very aggressive questions from the moderators and heckling from protestors at the end, along with Castro’s repeated (incorrect) questioning over whether he forgot something he’d said earlier. I think this is a net positive for Biden. It rallies his supporters around him, and while his campaign was notoriously uninteresting, now it’s getting interest.

On a personal level, this leaves me conflicted. I want to root for Biden as the pragmatic choice when the race seems to be coalescing around the top 3 — Biden, Warren and Sanders. However, it feels like they are splitting some qualities I dislike in Trump, if not to the same extent. Biden shares some of the mental confusion that makes me lose confidence in his decision-making and negotiating abilities; Sanders and Warren some of the shortsighted populist policies and grand promises unlikely to be fulfilled. I would still vote for any of them over Trump, who shares those plus — as Castro put it — a “dark heart” and narcissism driving him — but it does make me wonder whether there is still time for one of the other moderates to make an upward move.

Bernie Sanders — for whatever reason had a voice like he had just been impersonating Christian Bale’s Batman onstage for an extended voiceover reel. Has struggling to pay his staff left him unable to afford Chamomile tea? That said, he did his thing. He is good at owning the space with declarative statements and pregnant pauses.

Elizabeth Warren — did well. She has a good story. I want to like her but I get frustrated by her turns into populism that she should know better than — a Trump-y trade policy, wanting to ban fracking and nuclear (both counterproductive moves that would cause oil demand to spike), etc. I like that she put out plans, while most other candidates remain vague — but at the same time, I don’t agree with them. I do find her a compelling speaker, though a young woman at the bar I watched the debate at said she couldn’t stand her and she reminded her of an annoying mom. I wonder if she suffers from the Clinton-esque, maybe-gender-rooted perception of vague unlikeability. I would certainly vote for her in the general and hope for the best, but she and Bernie are also the two candidates where I personally know swing voters who would not vote for them in the general but would vote for other Democrats. Suburban swing districts were key in 2018 and will be important in 2020, and she may put the Democrats in a tougher position to take them.

Beto — Everyone onstage praised him to such an extent I was half sure they were voting for him. He’s said to have a “screw it” attitude towards campaigning at this point, born of stagnant poll numbers and the El Paso shooting rekindling his passion; he’s been campaigning in non-strategic spots and speaking from the heart. I think this makes him likable, and he delivered his first charismatic, non-robotic performance in this debate. That said, while I think this is great if you’re a movie protagonist, I don’t think it’s all positive. His most memorable line was ending a passionate speech about the effects of the El Paso shooting by saying “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47…” — confirming Republican talking points that for decades were laughed off by Democrats and have no chance of actually coming to pass. Long after the applause faded and after Beto’s campaign ends, these will still be useful for the GOP. They will also probably mean that Beto will never be a senator in Texas, a position where he might do the most good. He spoke compassionately about El Paso and perhaps just wants to go back there and be a prominent representative again, which is ok, but it feels like a shortsighted and self-indulgent move.

Pete Buttigieg — Continued to deliver a rock solid performance of intelligent and compassionate answers. He’s the backup moderate I’d be most inclined to support. The major shortcoming I see from him is that I don’t know if he can rally African-American voters; culturally, he feels distant from most large voting blocks besides college-educated white voters, many of whom are supporting Warren or Harris. Broadly, I think the crowded field is just keeping a lid on his ratings; one-on-one against any other candidate I’d like his chances, but that’s not the world we are in.

Kamala Harris — tried a strategy of attacking Trump directly over and over, I guess to seem more presidential? She had one line that hit, calling him like the Wizard of Oz, who seemed big but was really just a ‘small dude.’ However, she laughs awkwardly like even she is surprised when a joke hits, and had a terrible response to Biden telling her (correctly) that banning assault weapons by executive action was unconstitutional where she said “instead of saying ‘no we can’t,’ just say ‘Yes, we can.’” It was a desperate bid for applause that was just cringe-y and saturated with the disingenuousness people sense from her. She also gave a somewhat painful defense where she danced around her record as a prosecutor instead of standing up and defending it — or even apologizing for her mistakes. People may or may not forgive her, but the inauthenticity is painful to everyone.

Amy Klobuchar — another solid performance from a competent moderate who seems to be waiting in the wings in case Biden falls down (literally or figuratively). That’s basically her shot at this point; she is a competent politician who wins elections in the rust belt by wide margins and could be making more of an impact in a narrower field. But even if that occurred, she’d seem to be at the back of the line after Buttigieg and Beto, who are polling ahead of her.

Cory Booker — Not as moderate, but has an energy and fiery presence that make him exciting and possibly more electable in a general than anyone, current polls be damned. You could easily imagine a race in which he was the leading candidate and getting people fired up, but for whatever reason (a crowded field, most likely) it just hasn’t caught on. If Warren ends up pulling it out he’d be a natural choice for VP.

Julian Castro — Well, he swung for the fences, and came close to making them. But if you come for the king, you better not miss, especially if the king is pretty incapable of defending himself so it’s kinda embarrassing you did. He dropped in popularity after the debate — not that he had much room to fall to begin with — and might as well quit the race now. Honestly, it seems puzzling that he did launch an attack like that because even if it connected he certainly would not have launched 20 points in the polls — and now he may have hurt his chances of being VP or even a cabinet member. To me it sort of reminds me of Chris Christie trying to harpoon Rubio in the 2016 debate; you’re just hurting a viable candidate without much upside for yourself.

Andrew Yang — As before, I think his giveaway was a smart move to keep himself a topic of conversation. He’s differentiated enough from everyone to seem like he will keep making the cuts on this reality show. Personally, I like that he is coming from a totally different place and articulates some things well, like the difference between optimizing for GDP and optimizing for quality of life. However, I can’t get past that his campaign is centered around a plan that says it’s based on math, but doesn’t really add up. $12,000 a year is not going to solve the nation’s problems; it’s not enough to replace a job lost to automation, or social security or medical benefits. It’s likely to get captured to some extent by landlords and inflation. I am skeptical of automation eliminating millions of jobs in the near term when there are so many jobs there is actual demand for: child care, teachers, construction workers, etc. Hundreds of years of industrialization have eliminated hundreds of millions of jobs, yet we still have an unemployment rate below 5%. It may eventually be necessary, but it seems like an idea that is ahead of its time — not in a good way, but in the sense of solving a problem we don’t really have yet.

Incredible as it is, there’s an additional 10 candidates who weren’t even on stage that night, and probably shouldn’t bother continuing to campaign, but still will. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess. We must also ask ourselves with fear: how many more people would be campaigning if they had an extra $12,000 a year to do it?