What Presidential Debates Say About Us

public speaking

It wasn't long ago that I said I wasn't going to write a post sharing my impressions of the first Democratic debates of 2019 as I have in past years. While I have not changed my mind about that yet, I have been thinking about some of the reactions to the debates I have seen from others and thought I'd address what I think was the most interesting thing about these and other debates on a more general level.

As far as I'm concerned, the most interesting thing about the recent Democratic presidential debates (and any previous or future presidential debates) would have to be what they say about us. I am thinking about this in two ways. First, the themes that emerge in these debates likely reflect at least some of what is on the mind of many voters. That means that any presidential debate says something about the kind of things that were important to voters at the time. Second, what each of us individually thinks about how various candidates performed at any debate varies so much that I can't help thinking it says more about us than it does about them. Much of what I seen after these debates makes me wonder if I watched different ones from everybody else.

Voter Concerns

I don't think the people who moderate these debates select their questions randomly or make them up on the fly. The questions are crafted, however poorly, to reflect what those asking them or their bosses think voters want to hear. This is an imperfect process, and every one of us has had the experience of coming away from a debate feeling frustrated that the topics we care most about never came up. But in general, I think it would probably be fair to say that the questions and the answers give us at least some insight into many of the relevant issues of the day.

I find that interesting because it means that if we were to compare the first debates of 2019 with the first debates of any other year, we'd see something fairly different. We could use the debates from any year as a rough way of gauging what was on peoples' minds at the time. It wasn't that long ago that subjects like socialism, government-run health care, or climate change would be entirely absent at a Democratic debate.

It was not long ago that Bernie Sanders stood on a debate stage and presented ideas that struck much of the audience, including many Democratic voters, as radical. It wasn't just that some of them were far-fetched in the sense that there was no way he'd ever get Congress to go along with them; it was that some of them seemed outlandish to the point where some voters weren't even sure they were desirable. He was considered by many to be a fringe candidate that might be taken about as seriously as Marianne Williamson should today. Things have changed, and now some of what seemed radical not so long ago has become at least a bit more mainstream.

Presidential debates are sort of like a time capsule in that we could go back several years, watch one, and come away with a fairly clear sense of what was important to many people at the time. They reflect our anxieties, hopes, priorities, changing values, and the like. I think that makes them interesting even if one does not feel terribly invested in their outcome.

What Debate Did You Watch?

Like everyone else who watched the debates, I came away with my own impressions. I thought some candidates performed well, with a few doing much better than I expected. I thought that others turned in poor performances of which they should be embarrassed, with a few doing so much worse than I expected that I'm still surprised by it. But what is most fascinating about my impressions is how different many of them were from those of the pundits and much of what I have seen from other voters on Twitter. It is almost as if we watched different debates.

As an example, I thought Beto O'Rourke's performance in the first debate was poor enough that it should end his campaign. The way that Julián Castro destroyed him reminded me of how Donald Trump destroyed Jeb Bush, indicating that Trump would have similar success against O'Rourke. I think it would be a mistake for voters to allow O'Rourke to be the one to debate Trump. I was surprised to find few others holding this opinion.

The biggest WTF moment came on the second night. I thought that Bernie Sanders turned in a surprisingly poor performance. He's not new to this, and he still can't (or won't) provide clear answers to softball questions about the impact of his plans on middle-class taxes. How hard would it be to say, "Yes, my plan will increase taxes on the middle-class; however, this will be offset (by whatever percentage) by savings on health care premiums and deductibles." Instead, he seemed to become increasingly angry at these questions. If he has concrete plans for how to bring about what he says he wants, he still hasn't learned how to articulate them. I came away thinking that he needs to drop out of the race, a view not shared by hardly anyone.

Of course, this reflects the fact that what each of us brings to any debate is at least as important as what the candidates actually does or says. It probably says more about me that I found Bill Di Blasio's "manterrupting" to be off-putting while others welcomed it. For the most part, we end up liking the people we liked before the debate and disliking the ones we disliked before the debate. There are always exceptions (e.g., Sanders was certainly an exception for me), but I am skeptical that these debates change many minds among those who have been paying attention. I do think they matter when it comes to those who haven't been paying much attention and are encountering many of the candidates for the first time.