WGBH News Political Reporter Adam Reilly and Senior Editor Peter Kadzis, co-hosts of The Scrum podcast, are providing their real-time analysis of the first Democratic presidential debates. With 20 candidates to sort through over two nights, this promises to be a useful guide to what we are learning about the candidates and the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Consider this a kind of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for politics.
Reilly: Peter, I'll start with a pretty obvious question: what do you expect the big story of the night to be?
Before you answer, I'll risk a bit of redundancy by saying what I'll be watching for. It seems clear to me that Elizabeth Warren got a raw deal by getting stuck in the kiddie debate, where she won't be able to tussle directly with Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, or to juxtapose her own detailed policy proscriptions with Pete Buttiegieg's more — how to put it? — open-ended ones.
Since Warren's the only top-tier Democrat on stage tonight, I'm assuming the other candidates will go after her with a vengeance, to try to make themselves stand out and also to knock her down a peg or two. Whether they'll succeed is, obviously, an open question; she might just float serenely above the fray, as she did in that 2012 debate with an overexcited Scott Brown. Still, that's my big question: will Warren pay a price for being a big fish in a small pond?
Kadzis: I think you sell Warren short. This is a heaven-sent opportunity for her to put distance between herself and Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O'Rourke. Conversely, it's an opportunity for those three to show they can match Warren's game. With the exception of the Native American heritage issue — in her first senate campaign and before her primary announcement — Warren doesn't choke under pressure. Of course, there is always a first time.
Let me get something out of the way before the proceedings start. This isn't a debate, it is a beauty contest. The size of the Democratic field is a bad joke. It's a reflection of the undisciplined egotism of contemporary political culture. And this collective narcissism is custom made for exploitation by the culture of spectacle that is the essence of for-profit television. This, however, is the world we live in.
By the way, it felt good to type that out. I'm breathing a little easier already.
Here is something more concrete to keep in mind while watching: Almost everyone on stage Wednesday night is more liberal or progressive than the bulk of the Democratic electorate. According to the Pew Political Typology Survey, 52 percent of registered Democrats and independents who tend to vote Democratic define themselves as moderate (37 percent), or conservative (15 percent). But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Reilly: I don't want to rush to judgment here, but I feel like instead of going *after* Warren, the candidates thus far are basically trying to emulate her — e.g., Julian Castro's reference to hardship growing up or Cory Booker trying to make it sound like he agrees with Warren when it comes to breaking up big tech, even though he actually doesn't, as far as I can tell. If I'm right, of course, that means that my "storyline to watch" might not be the storyline to watch at all.
One other early point: I've paid pretty close attention to this race and this field, and the various candidates are already starting to blur together for me. Just imagine being an ordinary person, who doesn't fixate on this stuff, and trying to differentiate between the people on the stage right now.
Kadzis: You are dead right. Warren had the advantage of the first question and she set the tone. I think this underscores the fact that while she has been climbing in the polls, she's been setting the tone for everyone but Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
The only non-blur, to use your word, was Cory Booker. He manged to be economically populist but to present a reasonable alternative to Warren's more aggressive corporate attack.
It's going to be a long two hours. My head is spinning already.
Reilly: This back-and-forth on "Medicare for All" is actually pretty fascinating! Beto saying we shouldn't abolish private insurance, DiBlasio sensing an opportunity and yelling at him about how "the system" isn't working, Delaney pushing back for Beto when he was unable or unwilling to do it for himself... and then Warren pushing her way in before the moderators can change subjects to underscore just how much money healthcare insurers actually make. Glad the moderators are letting this particular exchange breathe a bit. We're actually seeing a conversation break out.
Kadzis: Well, this debate — like the larger campaign itself — is a bit of a mess. There is a lot of flailing energy.
Thirty minutes in, I'd say that it's a contest between Warren and Booker. Warren is holding onto her position as the front runner of these ten candidates. Booker is doing a darn good job of demonstrating that he is not to be forgotten.
I think it's time to resurrect my old idea that Beto O'Rourke retire from the race and open a chain of green laundromats.
The most interesting moment was when Jay Inslee went to score with a vigorous plug for his record as Washington governor with abortion rights and access, and Amy Klobuchar elbowed him aside with vigor by pointing out that there were three women on stage who have fought every bit as hard. Klobuchar has a knack for uniting that just hasn't caught on.
Reilly: It is messy, but I'm enjoying the growing shagginess. Case in point: watching Castro go after O'Rourke on whether illegal border crossings should be turned into civil offenses, as opposed to criminal ones — complete with a dig at O'Rourke for (allegedly) not doing his homework. Eco-friendly laundromats it is!
On a less flippant note, I'd actually peg Castro as the surprise of the night. Maybe it's just because I haven't caught him in action in New Hampshire yet, but I feel like he's demonstrated both a gravitas and an aggressiveness that makes him stand out a bit from the field as a whole.
Kadzis: I'm still confused by the way Castro tried to introduce transgender into the debate. But I see what you mean.
I continue to find Booker interesting tonight. He managed to be concrete when he decried our national obsession with criminalizing so many things. There is a libertarian as well as common-sense appeal here.
The entire immigration discussion is a disappointment. Opposing specifically — or through rhetorical gesture — Trump's policies will not cut it over the long run. There is no pro-active thought about what the nation needs to do at this time of crisis. Let's not forget that until recently, progressive America denied the crisis that Trump has so inhumanely exploited.
In Europe, Denmark specifically, parties of the left that have begun to come to grips with the reality of the challenge have been rewarded at the ballot box. The Democrats may be full of passion in opposing Trump, but they are irresponsible in not posing specific solutions. Although it is unfair of me to expect that in the shaggy, shaggy format.
Reilly: Chuck Todd's really pushing this "gun confiscation" angle, isn't he? Credit to Amy Klobuchar for pointing out that gun buybacks and gun confiscation are actually two very different things.
What surprises me, in this particular exchange, is that no Democrat has pointed out that the National Rifle Association is currently in disarray, and that the 2018 midterms suggest the power of the gun lobby may have been greatly overstated.
That said, just to pull back a bit ... we're in the midst of another conversation in which all the Democrats seem to be in broad agreement with each other. (The big counterexample, obviously, was that exchange over immigration that led me to praise Castro's performance.) Sure, there's the pragmatism/idealism contrast John Delaney is talking up as I type these words, but directionally, everyone seems to be on the same page. Is that just a function of this particular mix of candidates? Or do you think we'll see a similar unity of purpose on display tomorrow, too?
Kadzis: Well, Adam, I'm so glad you picked up on the gun discussion. At the risk of inviting a raft of hate mail, the idea that mass shootings, or school shootings, are statistically significant in the larger context of gun violence is irresponsible. Anyone who thinks I'm wrong should read this piece from Fivethirtyeight. God knows school shootings are emotional and traumatic. But gun violence is on the streets, not in the schools. Also gun buy-backs and gun give-backs don't work. They are politically popular. They create the illusion of doing something. But they are empty gestures.
By the way, our colleague Kaitlyn Locke has noticed that President Trump's reelection campaign is advertising heavily on YouTube tonight. A smart move. Everybody watches the tweets, but his use of paid social media has largely gone unnoticed.
Reilly: I want to get your take on what Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman, said a little while ago. I'm paraphrasing here, but his argument was basically: If the Democrats keep being perceived as a party of coastal elitists, they're not going to be able to make the sort of gains in the middle of the country that they need to win elections and accomplish their political goals.
Obviously, we've got a Democratic field in which there's a whole lot of economic populism on offer right now — but in which the highest-profile purveyors of that populism, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, hail from one of the coasts. One, as you may have heard, is even a Harvard professor!
So I guess my question is: If populism is, in fact, the Democrats' panacea, does it need to be delivered by a candidate from the "heartland" (a phrase I hate, btw) in order to succeed against Donald Trump? Or could, say, Warren's passion, knowledge, and deep biography offset her current domicile?
Kadzis: It's a paradox that someone who will be lucky to become a historical footnote should raise such a salient and uncomfortable point.
But let's not forget, Donald Trump is a card carrying member of the East Coast elite. He's a rich guy from New York City, who plays golf in New Jersey and Florida on golf courses he owns. He was privately and expensively educated. And his kids are coddled third-generation empty suits.
It's what you say, not who you are that matters.
Here is the challenge that Warren, a daughter of the American heartland, faces. Warren is, compared to the majority of voters, a left-leaning radical. But she puts her economic radicalism into the service of the lower and working classes. That's how her campaign is playing out at the moment. Will it continue on that track? Will Biden take her on? If he doesn't, I think he may lose the nomination to her. Bernie Sanders is still an open question. But Warren's gains have come at Sanders’ expense.
Reilly: Well, that's a wrap. Maybe it's my age, but I feel like the big takeaway from tonight is that a two-hour debate with 10 candidates is way more tiring than a two-hour debate with, say, two or three. Everything just starts blurring together around the midway point. At least, it did tonight, for me.
Someone — Dave Weigel from the Post, I think — pointed out that Warren was passed over when the moderators asked about Iran and Afghanistan. As you know, I thought she might regret ending up in tonight's debate because the other candidates targeted her. Instead, I feel like she just kind of ... faded away as the night went on. Is that too harsh?
Kadzis: This was the longest two hours of my professional life, so you might be right about Warren. But here's why I don't think so: She exhibited classic front-runner behavior. Among the 10 onstage tonight, she entered as the front-runner and she exited that way. She set the tone, and once the others were echoing her, Warren allowed herself to fade a bit. Warren maintained momentum; Cory Booker gained some. Amy Klobuchar showed promise, but you can only be promising for so long. The thing that Warren, Booker, and Klobuchar have in common is that if you cobbled together all their various answers, you'd get a semblance of an intellectual profile.
Two closing points about Warren: It struck me that she dodged a meaningful answer on foreign policy. Maybe I missed it, but she's weak with progressives in this area. I also wonder if her coming out against private health insurance will come back to haunt her. That's the stuff that good attack ads are made of. It's a position that is consistent with her overall thinking, but it is radical. Joe Biden, take note.