The big picture about last night’s debate

First up today, I’m going to attempt to make some sense of what happened at the debate in Houston last night, from a big-picture perspective.

Overall, I think nothing changed. From an electoral perspective, the outcome of this particular event will probably lead to polling bumps for a handful of candidates—especially Buttigieg, O’Rourke, maybe Yang, and maybe Klobuchar, maybe Castro?, but I don’t see how this materially changes the landscape related to where people stand in this field. It’s not like anybody rocketed up to the moon last night, or crashed down to earth.

I was also very wrong yesterday about all this speculation I had that we’d have Warren vs. Biden fireworks. Yes, they disagreed, but at no point did that turn into a spectacle or something unbecoming of a civil debate. I was right that Biden spread his arguments among both Warren AND Sanders, but, you know, you don’t have to be a professional political podcast host to predict that.

We have to talk about Biden. He has been the front-runner throughout the primary, though he is currently facing real challenges from both Sanders and Warren. Biden started out strong last night, he legitimately put up a better performance during roughly the first half of the debate.

But there were moments in the second half where he fell apart. The thing with the record player and children is what I’m talking about there. There’s also his refusal to answer the question about reparations, which fits a pattern where Biden seeming averse to the idea of admitting he was wrong about something he said or did 40 years ago. It seems weird to me, but that’s Biden. We know FOR SURE that Biden responds to these attacks on his former record by pivoting immediately to the idea that he is a good person and has done good things, so how dare you point out whatever thing he legitimately did wrong whenever that happened.

But you know what? We’ve seen this exact behavior from Biden before, and honestly it has not hurt him in the polls. I’m not sure why it would now. He did have a strong closing statement, and he made a vigorous—and I think well-received—case that his health care plan sounds more realistic than Medicare for All.

This is where we start to get into the difference between a primary debate and the general election. In the primary, I think the most engaged viewers and voters are likely to favor Medicare for All. But in the general election, that will probably change. Regardless of what you personally think is the better policy, Biden put forth a strong, clear, simple message. His point was that he had a practical, incremental, and paid-for approach that wouldn’t burn down the whole healthcare system. I suspect that message will play well with voters overall, even if it DOESN’T go well with a big chunk of the primary electorate. You saw the opposing message clearly articulated by Sanders, where he made the case for, as he put it, the “damn bill,” but other candidates continued to chip away at that and painted it as potentially unrealistic. On health care, this event may mark a real turning point where candidates kind of back up and reassess the options around Obamacare plus a public option, which is mostly what Biden’s plan is.

I think we even saw evidence of that when Biden essentially drew six members of the field toward saying, thanks, Obama. On the NPR Politics podcast this morning, they actually made a montage of all those candidates thanking Obama and acknowledging what he had managed to do. The fact that Biden has by far the clearest link to Obama and that healthcare work specifically, well, that gives him a leg up. And if he makes it through the primary, it will probably do so again in the general election.

A few other big things stood out to me. One was Beto O’Rourke. How do I put this. As I read it, O’Rourke is no longer running to win. I’m sorry, but he is running on a platform of moral courage, and that is a beautiful, righteous, important thing. It will not win him this primary. And I think he knows that, and I think he’s fine with it. O’Rourke took strong moral stands repeatedly throughout the night, and he turned in his best debate performance yet. It will not matter to his overall prospects, but I respect him as an honest, moral person. The shootings in El Paso really have changed how he’s treating this race, and I think the net effect of him sticking around and being SO HONEST and SO CLEAR in his convictions will be to pull the remaining candidates toward more action on things like gun safety and potentially even reparations. Those are both issues he tackled head-on.

Now, we saw a somewhat different approach from Klobuchar. In one of those rare instances that my prediction yesterday was correct, Klobuchar grabbed the middle and held on tight. She made the case that she’s from a purple state, and she kept putting that front and center. Again, in the context of a Democratic primary in 2019, that’s a tricky place to be, but it gives her a good reason to stick around, and she might be able to draw a lot of the moderate vote because there just aren’t that many people left on that stage who overlap with her in her political space.

So, big picture, this was three hours that maybe moved the needle a little on health care, a little on some of the lower-polling candidates, and frankly, I think not much else.

Yang’s big surprise

Next, we talked yesterday about Andrew Yang’s pre-announced surprise. I thought it would be some weird costume change, and I was wrong. In his opening statement, here’s the Yang surprise:

[CLIP-YANG-UBI]

I include the tail end there, because you can hear a clear reaction from the other candidates. They are literally laughing at a fellow candidate. Now, yeah, this was a stunt—you typically don’t start your big debate by announcing a contest. At the same time, Yang’s deeper point is worth listening to. He’s expanding his Universal Basic Income policy proposal in the context of the debate. I can only imagine how it feels for any candidate’s supporters to hear their candidate openly laughed at onstage, and I can also assume that the candidates doing the laughing don’t want those votes.

So here’s the thing. The immediate discussion around Yang’s proposal centered on whether it was legal, because the funds come from his campaign rather than his own pocket. The FEC has rules around how campaign funds can be spent, and there is disagreement among experts about whether this particular use is acceptable. Reading from an article in Time by Lissandra Villa:

““If it’s just given for no work done, for nothing at all, just a gift, that is inappropriate,” says Ann Ravel, a Democrat and former FEC commissioner. “You can’t just give cash.”
“I just cannot imagine that the statement that that’s being used as an example or a test [for how a policy would work] would be enough to make it appropriate,” says Ravel, who is running for a California state Senate seat. “Because it also has the secondary effect of looking like you’re trying to buy votes.”
The Yang campaign says their counsel reviewed the plan to give out the money and gave their blessing to move ahead with it. Anyone picked to receive the money will receive a $1,000 [dollar] monthly check from the campaign and a 1099 miscellaneous form to account for it in their taxes.”

This whole dust-up is going to continue, and presumably the FEC will issue a ruling. Oh wait, they can’t, because they don’t have a quorum. Check out our previous coverage of that if you like. But the whole thing gets at a fundamental misunderstanding of what Yang’s policy even is. Yang supporters are familiar with the concept and are completely comfortable with the idea of someone handing out cash to be spent however the recipient chooses. That is ENTIRELY the point of the exercise. Those who are not fans of a UBI look at this and say that Yang must be purchasing something by giving away money. It appears to them to be an exchange of value—why spend money if it’s not for a specific item in return, or somehow a gift? Therefore, they say, literally, either he’s purchasing votes or giving illegal gifts. That is the wrong way to look at it. I think this move, more than anything, will push the conversation about UBI into the mainstream, as people grapple with the real question: what is the net effect of giving cash to people and allowing THEM to choose how they’ll spend it?

I don’t think it’ll make the UBI issue any less controversial, don’t get me wrong. But this moment with Yang exposed the different universes that Yang’s supporters and essentially the rest of the field are living in. Which leads us to our next topic.

Who got the most speaking time at the debate

As we have for every debate, let’s run through who spoke the most and the least. According to a measurement by The Washington Post, the most talk time went to Joe Biden, with 17.4 minutes. Right behind him was Elizabeth Warren at 16.5. Then there’s a small dip down to Cory Booker at 14.7, Bernie Sanders at 14.1, and Kamala Harris at 13.7 minutes.

And here are the remaining candidates, in declining order: Buttigieg, Castro, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, and Yang. Yang got a total of 7.9 minutes of talk time, compared to 17.4 at the top. Doing the math, that’s less than half.

This is the third time Yang has ended up dead last in talk time on a DNC debate stage, out of the three appearances he has made.

He actually got LESS time this round than in the July debate, when he had 8.7 minutes in total. Back in June, he got 3 minutes. In fact, if you add up ALL the talk time Yang has EVER had on any DNC debate stage, it’s still less than what Biden got on one night in July.

And yet again, this has Yang supporters rightly riled up. Why is one candidate consistently such an outlier? You’d have to ask NBC, CNN, and ABC, but it seems clear that none of them have prioritized equal time.

This major disparity in talk time, coupled with other candidates openly laughing at this candidate’s policies, really does seem insulting to me. We have these talk time metrics live, during the event, and I think the DNC needs to step up and tell whoever’s holding that October debate to let this guy talk—more broadly, to create and enforce some kind of metric in order to make sure that being on that stage actually matters.

Yang met every single challenge the DNC put in front of him, he gets to the stage, he’s even polling better than a good chunk of that stage, and then he gets the least amount of time. Always.

Now that’s a pattern, and whatever is causing it, I don’t care—it’s time to fix it. So I’ll keep reporting on this as long as it keeps happening.

What those protestors were saying

You may recall that just after George Stephanopoulos asked Joe Biden for his closing statement, a very long and loud protest broke out in the audience. At home, I couldn’t make out what they were saying, since it sure sounded like a bunch of people yelling over one another.

So, for all the viewers who asked last night, those protestors were apparently DACA recipients, who are in a dangerous position after the Obama-to-Trump switch left them in a kind of legal limbo. What they shouted was, “We are DACA recipients. Our lives are at risk.”

From the reporting I’ve seen this morning, they were escorted from the room but were neither charged nor arrested.

The Castro-versus-Biden moment and who was actually wrong there

One of the thoughest moments of the night was a clash instigated by Julián Castro against Biden on the topic of healthcare. It was a tough moment for multiple reasons. Let me just play this first clip, and then we’ll talk. George Stephanopoulos speaks first.

[CLIP-CASTRO-FORGET]

Yeah, so you can hear the audience reaction there. Whether Castro intended it or not, this came across as Castro questioning whether Biden’s memory was failing him due to age. The specific issue in question here is whether Biden’s healthcare plan automatically enrolls people or not. Castro said that Biden had JUST SAID his plan would NOT automatically enroll people. Well, let’s rewind the tape and listen to what Biden said. By the way, this was about ten minutes earlier. Listen in:

[CLIP-BIDEN-WHAT-HE-REALLY-SAID]

Now if THIS is the clip Castro is referring to, he seems to be incorrect. Biden explicitly says his plan will automatically enroll people. Okay, so Castro might be referring to a clip that really was about two minutes prior to Castro’s statement. Let’s listen to that one:

[CLIP-BIDEN-TWO-MINUTES-EARLIER]

Okay, so Biden says two things there, he does say the phrase “buying in,” but also is extremely clear that there is no block to people getting care, which is the larger point, and, to quote Biden, “You get covered. Period.”

So, you know, who is correct here? Well, Castro has a minor point in that, yes, Castro’s plan is opt-out and Biden’s is opt-in, but that actually doesn’t mean a whole lot in practice. And Castro is wrong about what Biden said. I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not, but he’s just plain wrong. Reading here from PolitiFact, which fact-checked the exchange.

“Castro’s plan is an opt-out plan while Biden’s is an opt-in plan, but the differences between those are much less than Castro suggests. Biden’s plan would guarantee Americans who are in need access to Medicare coverage, just like Castro’s would. The differences would likely amount to the nature or timing of paperwork, rather than being significant barriers to access.
Castro used this questionable distinction to charge that Biden had said opposing things within two minutes, but that’s an exaggeration at best.
The statement has an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, so we rate it Mostly False.”

This led to a testy exchange with Buttigieg reminiscent of the now-classic “food fight” line from the Miami debate. Buttigieg said, “This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable.” Things did remain relatively civil after that. And, to be fair, if Castro’s strategy is to gain attention and get his numbers up, this will probably do that. But it may also alienate some chunk of the electorate.

Buttigieg’s closing statement

By the way, normally we would close Friday with a Candidate Anecdote, but we are running WAY LONG and so I’m gonna push that for next week. We do have one lined up.

Okay, so we’re going to wrap up debate coverage with the closing statement from Mayor Pete Buttigieg. There were a lot of good closing statements last night, and I had to pick one.

This one jumped out at me, because in my lifetime I have seen real change in what we thought a president might look like. When I was a kid, even if we believed in our hearts that, for instance, a person of color, or a woman, would BE a good president—and we DID believe this—it was not clear that this would actually happen in my lifetime.

Seeing Barack Obama elected was frankly a revelation to me. I wasn’t sure we were there as a country. But we were, and we remain. Seeing Clinton almost elected, well, I guess we weren’t quite there, but we were truly close.

And now seeing an openly gay man running for president, and having the freedom and respect to talk about his identity on national television without jokes, without self-deprecation, without marginalization, is deeply moving to me.

I’m young enough to understand that hope is real, and hope is all we’ve got. You wouldn’t be listening to this right now if you didn’t have some real dose of hope in there somewhere.

But I’m also old enough to remember when we didn’t think that these hopes were practical. But there are multiple people in this field right now who have already made history, and who could go on to make an even bigger change in our country. Here’s one of them.

[CLIP-BUTTIGIEG-CLOSING-STATEMENT]

Well, that is it for one more episode of the Election Ride Home. I have been your host, Chris Higgins. You can always find me on Twitter @chrishiggins. Okay, I’ve been working on a special surprise, and you’ll get to hear the first part of it on Monday. Monday’s show will depart from our daily news format and we’ll have our first-ever guest host. That’s Kirby Ferguson, the creator Everything is a Remix, among many other things. He’s taking over the show for a day to cover a special topic, and I’m not gonna spoil the topic, but I think you’ll find it to be fun and also very pertinent to this election. Because, hey, it’s Kirby, he’s really good at this stuff, and I just heard the draft today. So tune in for that, and I will of course cover anything that happens the next day. As always, thanks for listening, and I will talk to y’all on TUESDAY.