Understanding last night’s debate, who talked the most last night, key moments from the debate, and a little bit of wrap-up…about the debate. Really, just debate stuff.


Show Transcript

Note: This is the speaking script for the show, so the audio as delivered will differ very slightly from the below. This script also does not include audio clips from third-party sources, or advertisements, which may appear at various points in the show.

Understanding last night’s debate

Okay, today we are handling the debate recap a little bit differently. Essentially, I’m gonna give you some basic info about what happened and what the themes were, then we’re going full clip-show mode for the rest of the time. I’ll take a break in the middle for sponsors, but the majority of this show is clips and analysis. So prepare yourself, stay hydrated, whatever you need to do.

Going into the debate, the big question was really about Biden. How would he perform? Would he succeed in defending himself from attacks? As the clear polling frontrunner, he was the target I most expected other candidates to go after. As we’ll hear in the clips, that did happen, but another dynamic emerged immediately: the candidates also went after Senator Kamala Harris. This makes sense, as she got the big polling bump after the last debates, because of her direct engagement with Biden.

So, you know, if you’re polling at zero or one percent, it’s probably logical to go after ANYBODY with good poll numbers and attempt to pull them down, in the hopes that you’ll get a bump up. Part of this is absolutely necessary in order for candidates to get polling numbers that allow them to continue appearing in DNC debates—the next one being in September, and those polls have to come in by the end of August. Which, by the way, somehow it’s August now. How did that happen?

Right now, a lot of the people on stage need better polling—AND more donors—in order to make it to the September debate. So, as with the previous night, we saw conflict, and rehearsed lines, and framing from CNN that encouraged conflict. It was a somewhat different vibe, with a lot more back-and-forth involving Biden and Harris, although they engaged various others and not just each other, but that also meant the distribution of time was rather different. Just watching it, though, I saw a good deal more of what a “debate” classically is. You know? Like, people ended up going through multiple rounds of followup back and forth, without the moderators doing as much of that thing from Tuesday, where they’d just cut it off, then grab some random other candidate and change the subject.

The other thing to note is that there were multiple interruptions by protestors in the audience. This was a real different from all the previous nights, and you can go look up what those were about if you like, there’s a link in the show notes. The night was also plagued by technical difficulties related to audio. I could nerd out on those, but I won’t, point being, you’ll hear some scratchy stuff in the clips I play, and, you know, oh well.

I’ll save my final analysis for the end of the show, after you’ve heard some clips, so let’s move into the one other key thing you need to know before we dive in.

Who talked the most last night

In what is quickly becoming a grand tradition for both this show and literally everybody covering the debates, it’s time to talk about talking. Specifically, how much talking each candidate did, and why, and whether we sre okay with that.

At the top of the list last night was Joe Biden, with 21.2 minutes of total talk time. At the bottom was Andrew Yang, who got 8.7 minutes—that’s just under what John Hickenlooper got the next before. So, yet again, Yang somehow ends up with the least time of any candidate on these debate stages. Though, at least this time, it wasn’t a total runaway, unlike the June debate that had him around 3 minutes.

In between those two poles, you did have Kamala Harris with a very healthy 17.7 minutes, then Cory Booker with 12.8 minutes, Kirsten Gillibrand with 11.6, and the rest clustered right around 10 minutes, plus or minutes half a minute or so.

Now, the Washington Post did a nice analysis breaking down the manner of talking all of that time represented—whether it was, QUOTE, “time spent in back-and-forths,” END QUOTE, or what they called “other time.” That analysis is SUPER important, because it exposes why Biden and Harris got the most time—their time was spent overwhelmingly in back-and-forth exchanges, rather than simply answering questions from the moderators.

So, let’s compare for a moment. Yang, with his low 8.7 minutes, spent ALL OF THOSE MINUTES speaking in what the Post called “other time,” meaning responses to original moderator questions, or very brief two-part exchanges. If you look at it that way, Yang got a much better ratio of putting his message first, rather than brawling—and it’s clear that nobody was going after him. Now, as for what counts as back-and-forth time, let me read from the Post:

“...[T]he most testy and often least revealing exchanges were the ones that moderators instigated, calling out candidates with opposing policies and pitting them against each other. This conflict-heavy approach, coupled with an inconsistent enforcement of the time limits, created a debate that often reduced complicated policy discussions to unsatisfying soundbites.
In 26 cases across the two nights, candidates got into back-and-forth exchanges that consisted of at least three answers or responses. Most of these exchanges were set up or encouraged by the moderators, and they made up a large portion of each evening’s total time.”

So, in short, the reason Biden and Harris top the night in talk time is partly because everybody was going after them, sometimes at the urging of the moderators, and the two were going after each other, and the moderators clearly encouraged all of this—they wanted to see candidates directly engaging, and the candidates showed up ready to engage with Biden and Harris.

Key moments from the debate

Okay, folks, clip-show time! Last night’s debate offered us a pile of tasty clips, but what I want to do is offer you not just the zingers, but the stuff that happened AROUND the zingers. You know? The context matters, and sometimes actually listening to how a candidate speaks, on-the-fly, gives you a sense of how that person might react in, oh, say, a general election debate with the current president. Also, please keep in mind that I am summarizing two hours and 24 minutes of actual content, so we’re not gonna hit every single policy or important moment.

First up, the very first thing Joe Biden said as CNN brought the candidates to the stage. Harris came up second, to join Biden as he stood there, and Biden shook her hand, smiled, and, well, listen in:


Now, I did a bunch of work to try to isolate that dialogue from the roaring crowd, but there’s only so much you can do. The key thing is that Biden said, “Go easy on me, kid." And he actually caught a bunch of flak for that, given that there’s only a 22-year age difference between them, and, you know, Harris is a Senator and a grownup. She did not, in fact, go easy on him. Anyway, link in the show notes to more on that, let’s keep moving.

This next clip is long, and it illustrates a bunch of key points from the overall debate. This is an exchange between Booker and Biden on the issue of criminal justice. It also contains several zingers and gaffes. Now, I play this because I think it encapsulates SO MUCH of what this night was about.

It is, for one thing, a very long back-and-forth—again, that’s what gave Biden SO MUCH TIME overall—and for another, it exposes all these rifts between the candidates. There are meaningful differences in generation, in race, in policy, and we get at them here. We already know Booker was unhappy with Biden’s past crime bills and his recently released plan—see previous shows for more on that—but we hadn’t seen them face-to-face trying to hash out.

So, I think you’ll benefit from listening carefully to this exchange, and I’ll come back afterward to fill in some notes:


Okay, so if you didn’t follow that Kool-Aid thing, look, I’m not from New Jersey, but my understand that phrase is essentially Booker telling Biden he’s sticking his nose in somebody else’s business, and he doesn’t even understand what that business is. What’s so interesting about that as a line is that it is simultaneously generational, racial, and kind of related to policy. So if you’re gonna rehearse a line, that one ticks pretty much all the boxes.

All right, let’s take a brief break now for sponsors. I’ll be back in a moment.


So Biden wasn’t the only one the other candidates went after. Harris was also a MAJOR target. Here’s another long clip in which Representative Gabbard goes straight at Harris, repeatedly, and again we get a sense of the distinction in this debate versus the previous night, in terms of the back-and-forth. The gloves were off, and candidates were given room to have these one-on-one extended arguments. Listen in:


There’s a link in the show notes to a Vox explainer of Harris’s complex history as the AG of California, and DA in San Francisco, and it’s worth reading that to get a sense of what Gabbard is going after here.

Now, remember that Harris went after Biden’s old positions in the last debate and benefited from it, so now other candidates are going after Harris’s old positions—or at least, their representations of those positions—and we’ll have to see how the post-debate polling changes as a result.

Okay, next topic. One big surprise was that, in the middle of the last night’s event, a climate debate broke out. Now, this is what the DNC promised—that it would ask its media partners to include climate questions within each debate. And it seems CNN saved this for a moment when Jay Inslee happened to be on stage.

So far, this is the most substantive discussion of climate that we’ve seen among these candidates in a debate. And I think it’s instructive to listen to this exchange, again, sorry, it’s kind of a long one, but this is how we understand what a climate debate might indeed look like. In this clip, we hear from Inslee and Biden, with a dash of Yang’s fatalism in the middle. This DID go on to include Harris and Gillibrand, but I’m trying to keep these clips as short as possible. But just knowing that we had FIVE CANDIDATES involved in this climate exchange is really notable—that is a climate debate, albeit a brief one, and they are getting at policy here. All right, listen in:


Okay, we are getting to the end here. This is a segment from Yang’s closing statement, and it reflects kind of what Yang got all night, which was to explain things in real terms—he seemed like an outsider, and is because he’s not an elected official—and then always pivot his solution to a Universal Basic Income. Now, we can differ on whether that’s the right solution, but Yang does a good job of exposing the innate weirdness of this whole process. Listen in:


And finally, the clip the gives today’s show its name, “No Shelter,” came from Gabbard’s closing statement. It got at a theme of the night related not just to nuclear policy, but also to climate change. The candidates spent time shifting between policies that affect people at the local level, and then all the way up to policies that affect the globe. I think this clip encapsulates that kind of global-problem thinking, and although it’s specifically about the mistaken nuclear strike warning that happened last year, it’s also a reasonable metaphor for climate change. Listen in:


Final thoughts

Okay, so what do we make of this whole thing overall? I’m going to make this very simple. Biden did relatively well. Yes, he mis-spoke a lot, and yes, everybody attacked him, but he remain the front-runner in this race. Booker also did VERY well, and I think may see a Harris-like bump in the polls. So we may see Booker enter that hallowed ground of upper-tier candidates after this.

The biggest news of the night was that, frankly, Harris didn’t do very well. She often seemed off-balance, and it just didn’t come together like last time. Having said that, I think the level of expectation put on Harris for this debate probably made it inevitable that she would “underperform,” given that she crushed it so hard last time. So Harris is by no means out of that upper tier of candidates; but she didn’t have an awesome night either.

I look forward to seeing the September debates, and honestly, more than that, I look forward to whatever this month will bring. Remember, we don’t have a DNC debate this month, so this is a golden opportunity for the candidates to spend four weeks doing their own thing, and in many cases, that explicitly means trying to qualify for the September debate. But I will keep you posted on that as we go.