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My Reaction to Tonight’s Democratic Debate
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Democrats Debate in Detroit

The first night of the second round of Democratic candidates' debates is a wrap. Here's our assessment:

Who helped themselves the most? We are going to go with...nobody.

As predicted, the fundamental dynamic of the night was progressives vs. moderates. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) were on the former side, joined (sort of) by Beto O'Rourke and Marianne Williamson. John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) were on the latter side. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend) avoided the main fray, preferring to focus instead on how he would be a tough matchup for Donald Trump.

Anyhow, the two best performances on the evening came from Warren and Sanders. They were eloquent and spoke with conviction. They got far and away the most speaking time, with 17.9 minutes for her, and 17.6 minutes for him (by way of comparison, third Pete Buttigieg had 14.4 minutes of speaking time). The duo also got in most of the best lines, both serious and humorous. And they honored their "armistice," with neither of them taking a single shot at the other.

With that said, there were two significant problems with both Warren's and Sanders' performances that keep them from slam dunk wins. The first is that they both repeated their pre-scripted talking points a few too many times, particularly in the last portion of the debate. Warren, for example, said two different times during the debates that the insurance companies have "sucked billions of dollars out of our health care system," using the exact same phrase on both occasions, and then repeating it two more times while talking to Anderson Cooper after the debate. Sanders kept repeating how he is going to "take on the fossil fuel industry." While there is a certain value to repetition, in that it helps viewers retain things, it can also come off as not very genuine, particularly when the exact same phrasing is used each time.

The much more serious problem for Warren and Sanders is that there are several questions that they will face over and over if they are the nominee, and that Donald Trump and the GOP will use to bludgeon them. Most obviously: (1) Why is it better to force everyone onto Medicare instead of allowing people to keep their private insurance if they wish to do so?; (2) Will your healthcare plans require people to pay more in taxes?; and (3) If you want to decriminalize undocumented immigration, isn't that the same thing as "open borders"? The two Senators should have rock-solid answers to all three of those questions, and they basically did not. In particular, Warren was given multiple opportunities to clarify her views on decriminalization, and she couldn't do it. Since all three of these questions are blindingly obvious, it is interesting that Sanders and Warren struggled as much as they did.

The best performance from the moderate side of the aisle was provided by John Delaney. He communicated some of the things that make him distinctive (for example, strong support for Barack Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership). He also had some good soundbites to deploy against his leftier colleagues, like describing their plans as "fairy-tale economics" (a clear nod to George H. W. Bush's description of the Reagan economic plan as "voodoo economics"). With that said, most of Delaney's time was spent on him explaining what he opposes, not what he's for. This prompted Warren to hit him pretty hard: "You know, I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for." The audience loved that line.

So, Warren, Sanders, and Delaney were the strongest performers, but due to the soft spots in their performances, they were all about a 7.5 out of 10. And nearly everyone else on stage checked in at about a 5 or 6 out of 10, with nobody making huge errors, and most enjoying at least one or two good moments (including Williamson). Put another way, roughly eight of the ten performances were clustered pretty closely together. Further, the policy differences between these folks are often pretty subtle (particularly to non-politics junkies). And finally, last month's results suggest that the first night of debates tends to get eclipsed out by the second night. Under these circumstance, it was hard for anyone to separate themselves from the pack all that much, and so none of them did.

Who helped themselves the least? Since there were no breakout performances, any of the candidates who really needed a boost from this debate (ahem, Steve Bullock, Beto O'Rourke, and Amy Klobuchar) would be on the list of those who helped themselves the least.

Meanwhile, we noted that there were roughly eight good performances (we're including Williamson in that group, probably because our expectations for her were so low). That leaves two bad ones, which came from Tim Ryan and John Hickenlooper. Ryan continues to do an excellent job of running for president of northern Ohio. Why anyone outside that area would vote for him is a mystery. Meanwhile, Hickenlooper is cranky about Donald Trump, and cranky about socialism, but what he stands for between those two poles was entirely unclear.

Anyone else worth mentioning? Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). She wasn't on stage on Tuesday, of course. However, if the folks she's jockeying with for position make no progress on their night to shine, that leaves an opening for her to make some progress on hers. Further, nothing particularly profound was said last night when racism came up, perhaps because all 10 people on stage were white. That means that the fruit presented by Donald Trump's recent racist tweets remains there for her to pick.

How did the moderators do? Jake Tapper, Don Lemon, and Dana Bash obviously watched what NBC did a month ago and took notes about how to do better. And so, in contrast to the first debate, they allowed all of the candidates to make an opening statement, which was helpful for viewers. They also avoided silly "raise your hand if..." questions. And they were also pretty aggressive in cutting off candidates who had reached their time limits, which we generally approve of, although they sometimes shut someone up in the middle of a juicy point.

That said, the questions did have a curious political slant, in the sense that many of them could very well have been written by the Trump campaign. To take one example, they asked Hickenlooper "Do you believe that Sen. Sanders is too extreme to beat President Trump?" To take another, they asked Sanders "Do you believe guaranteeing migrants free health care and college will encourage more illegal immigration?" Worded in this manner, these questions are very leading. Put it this way: If a pollster called people and asked these questions, they would be squarely in the realm of push polling. And these were not isolated examples; at least a dozen questions were similar in tone and content. In fact, Sanders even called Tapper out on one occasion, declaring, "Jake, your question is a Republican talking point."

It's improbable that any of the three moderators are secret GOP operatives. Presumably their goal was to appear balanced and to push the candidates out of their comfort zones. That's fair, but they went a little far in that direction. Part of the reason that Sanders and Warren got trapped by the "Will Medicare for All raise taxes?" question is that Tapper did not really allow for the possibility that an increase in taxes will be offset by a decrease in out-of-pocket costs. Yes, the candidates should be able to deal with that, since they are sometimes going to get leading questions. But, as a theoretically neutral umpire, Tapper should not be painting them into unfair corners.

We also have one other criticism of the moderators, which we discuss below.

Issue of the night: Healthcare. The debate touched on half a dozen major subjects, including immigration, racism, reparations, and the environment. However, it was healthcare that came first, and that got the most attention—roughly 40 minutes' worth, after the candidates gave their opening statements.

Snarky line of the night: Ryan got into a dustup with Sanders about exactly what Medicare for All would entail, and said that the Vermont Senator did not know for sure what benefits would be provided. Sanders replied: "I do know it, I wrote the damn bill." It brought down the house. You can see the exchange here (it lasts for about 20 seconds):

Non-snarky line of the night: This one goes to Pete Buttigieg, who declared "It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. It's true that if we embrace a far-left agenda they're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they're going to do? They're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists."

Reddest meat of the night: There were certainly some meaty lines, but instead of a specific quote, we're going to go with the candidates' rather ham-fisted efforts to establish their bona fides on various issues of interest to the Michigander audience. Pretty much all of them shared stories of a parent or grandparent who was a blue-collar laborer; a friend or relative who was affected by the state of America's healthcare system; and a friend, relative, or constituent who was victimized by gun violence. Oh, and nearly all of them apparently used their trip to Michigan as an opportunity to visit the town of Flint, which has notoriously spent years dealing with a tainted water supply.

Blunder of the night: The debates were originally scheduled to run for a little over two hours, but the moderators allowed them to run for closer to three (2:47). This should not happen. First of all, it is not fair to east coast viewers, for whom the debates did not end until nearly 11:00 p.m. Second, like running a marathon, public speaking expends quite a bit of energy, and requires pacing (particularly under stage lights, which can easily drive the temperature on stage up into the high 80s). If 5 miles were to be added on to the end of a marathon at the last moment, the runners would rightly be furious, as they would be asked to run 20% more after having already emptied the tank. Similarly, it was clear that some of the debaters were pretty gassed by the time the debate entered its third hour. Some of them started to repeat themselves, or stumbled a fair bit during their closing remarks.

For these reasons, the second debate should be kept to two hours. It won't be, but it should.

A little historical perspective: Marianne Williamson would like to see somewhere between $100 billion and $500 billion paid out in reparations to black folks. How did she come up with that price tag? She explained: "If you did the math of the 40 acres and a mule, given that there was 4 million to 5 million slaves at the end of the Civil War, four to five—and they were all promised 40 acres and a mule for every family of four, if you did the math today, it would be trillions of dollars. And I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult."

Most viewers are probably vaguely familiar with "40 acres and a mule," but here's the full story. When Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was marching to the sea (which came after he captured Atlanta), he conquered substantial amounts of South Carolina land that needed to be held. His campaigns also caused many thousands of slaves to attach themselves to his army, since they had nowhere else safe to go. The General's problem is that he didn't have the manpower to hold so much territory, nor did he have the supplies to feed and clothe so many hangers-on. So, he solved both problems with Special Field Orders No. 15, which was promulgated on Jan. 15, 1865, and assigned 40-acre (or smaller) plots of land to freedmen for them to work. This was meant to be a temporary arrangement, and there was no mention of mules in the original orders. Further, the war ended just a few months later, before the orders could really take effect (after all, the height of winter is hardly cotton-planting season).

This relatively limited wartime measure gave millions of freed slaves (and their liberal white allies) hope that the federal government would set them up as independent yeoman farmers after the war. This is when the phrase "40 acres and a mule" really took hold. However, the legality of seizing and redistributing hundreds of millions of acres of Southern land was questioned by many, and, in any event, there was no way that Congress was going to go for it. The kind of social welfare program that "40 acres and a mule" would have represented did not become politically acceptable until the New Deal, 70 years later. And that was with white people as the primary beneficiaries. Most members of Congress in 1865, even the ones who voted to adopt the 13th Amendment and end slavery, were white supremacists, and had little interest in giveaways to black people.

A detail that may fly under the radar: Speaking of history, has Pete Buttigieg not studied his? One of the reasons that Richard Nixon lost the first ever televised presidential debate is that his five-o-clock-shadow made him look a little sinister. He took a lesson from that, and began wearing stage makeup thereafter:

Tricky Dick getting makeup

Buttigieg had a very visible five-o-clock shadow last night, which made him look...well, a little sinister.

On a scale of 1-10, how contentious was it? There were definitely punches thrown between the liberal and moderate factions, but things were still pretty civil, especially compared to how nasty the future presidential debate vs. Donald Trump will be. We're going to give it a 3.

On a scale of 1-10, how much will this debate move the needle? Consistent with the assessment above, we don't think it will move the needle too much. We'll go with another 3.

The bottom line: The DNC did its best to avoid a "junior varsity" and a "varsity" debate, but it's not working out so well. This setup is better than having an afternoon debate (which nobody watched) and an evening debate, but the real solution is to set the bar for qualifying higher. If you can't crack the Top 10, you're not a viable candidate.

Take a deep breath, clear youe head, and then get ready to do it all again tonight. (Z)

Second Debate Figures to Be Different From the First

Now that the first group of Democratic candidates has had their chance at the spotlight, the next group will get a turn. Up tonight will be Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Julián Castro, Andrew Yang, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), and Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City). There are at least two built-in differences compared to the first night of debates. The first is that Biden, who currently leads in all the polls, will be on stage. The second is that all of the non-white candidates in the field will be present.

Expect the fireworks to fly early and often. Harris and Booker both need to make up some ground at Biden's expense, and are reportedly planning to hit him hard on criminal justice reform and on race. Biden, for his part, realizes he blew it during the first debate; this time he plans to punch back. There are reports that Gillibrand plans to blindside Biden with charges of sexism. Inslee is going to hit many of his rivals for their less-aggressive-than-his environmental platform. In short, it probably won't be quite as civil as Tuesday's affair.

Although Biden is more prepared this time, even his advisers are not entirely certain he's up to fighting off Harris, much less three or four other attackers. Because he has so much money on hand, and so much support in the polls, he may be able to survive another bad outing. On the other hand, maybe not. Going 0-for-2 in the first two debates will give rise to a narrative, and that narrative will have a month to gather steam before the next debates. And then, when the Democrats take the stage in September, the former VP will likely have to face down all of his biggest rivals at once. Thus far, he's been semi-insulated by having half of them debate on a different night. He has yet to face off against Elizabeth Warren, for example, who could prove to be Biden kryptonite.

As to Harris, she's not going to turn herself into the frontrunner overnight, nor is she going to torpedo her campaign. So, she probably has less on the line tonight than Biden does. On the other hand, time and money are running short for most of the other folks on stage. In particular, without a breakout performance, this could be the last gasp for Gillibrand, Gabbard, Bennet, Castro, de Blasio, and Inslee. Booker is on the bubble, too, but he's already qualified for the third debate, so he will live to see another day regardless of what happens tonight. Yang will soon qualify, as well.

The details for the second debate are the same as the first. Dana Bash, Jake Tapper, and Don Lemon will moderate, as they did last night. You can pay for cable and watch it on CNN, or sign up for streaming service fuboTV and watch it there, or you can watch for free on CNN's app, CNN's website, and on the apps/websites of other news providers (CNN, MSNBC, ABC). 8:00 p.m ET is the start time, while the end time is apparently whenever Bash, Tapper, and Lemon feel like it. (Z)

Trump Gets Another Court Victory

Donald Trump tends to go about 1-for-3 when it comes to court decisions. And like any .333 hitter, he sometimes comes out on top two times in a row. So it was on Tuesday. Following his win with the Supreme Court on Friday of last week, he got another from U.S. District Judge John Koeltl (a Bill Clinton appointee).

This particular case was filed by the DNC, and was something of a Hail Mary pass. What the Democrats were arguing was that by encouraging Wikileaks to steal and publish DNC e-mails and documents, Trump and his campaign were guilty of racketeering. Koeltl wasn't buying it, and wrote in his decision that unless Team Trump actually participated in the theft of the materials (and there is no evidence they did), then everything they did is fair game and is covered by the First Amendment.

The President, of course, celebrated his win:

He's right to celebrate. But he can't possibly think this is the end of Russiagate, can he? Because many more lawsuits are percolating, Russia-related and not, and he's due for a few losses. After all, nobody's batted .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941. (Z)

California Will Require Presidential Candidates to Provide Tax Returns

Lots of blue states have threatened to do it, and many of them may still follow through, but California became the first one to actually take the plunge on Tuesday. The Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act had already passed both houses of the state legislature by large margins, and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) signed it into law. The bill requires that any candidate for president or governor who wants to appear on the state's primary ballot must submit the last five years' of tax returns at least 98 days ahead of the primary election.

Donald Trump's lawyer, Jay Sekulow, has already announced plans to file suit. So has the California GOP. You never know what will happen when you get in front of a judge, but they probably shouldn't hold their breath. A fairly sizable majority of legal scholars think that the law should pass muster, since states have pretty wide latitude in establishing qualifications for candidates who want to appear on ballots. Further, there are exactly 118 days left until the deadline. Even if Team Trump gets a favorable outcome, they might not be able to work their way through the process (including appeals) in time.

Assuming that the law stays on the books as of November 25 (the deadline for submitting the returns), then things could get interesting. Presumably, Trump will not bow to the demands of a blue state that he hates. The GOP could summarily award all of the state's delegates to him, but that would probably trigger lawsuits from Bill Weld and any other GOP challengers. Alternatively, the Party could try to arrange a write-in campaign (which is legal in California primaries, even though it's not in the general). When Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) ran her successful write-in campaign in 2010, her campaign distributed thousands of copies of the rebus shown on the left. Maybe the Trump campaign could come up with something like the rebus on the right:

Mur+Kow+Ski, T+Rump

Alternatively, the GOP could just decide that Trump will be fine without California's delegates, and will leave them on the table for Weld, et al., to collect. Of course, that won't work so well if many other blue states follow California's lead.

In the end, our guess is that this won't matter too much. There are so many lawsuits related to Trump's taxes in which the President's position is none-too-strong, and in which early rulings have gone against him, that his taxes will likely be public before Californians ever head to the polls. (Z)

Today in Bad Optics, Part I: Trump's Speech

Back when he was running for president, specifically in May 2016, Donald Trump gave a major speech on energy in which he laid out his "America First" energy policy. It turns out that he had some interesting editorial assistance on that speech. According to the New York Times, the Trump campaign sent a draft of the speech to government officials in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for their comments and corrections.

Needless to say, there is no known case of a president, prior to Trump, allowing a foreign government to vet his speech. It's arguably even worse for a presidential candidate to do it, since they are not legally allowed to conduct diplomacy on behalf of the United States, and this is in that ballpark. One day, we may know for certain exactly why the President (and, for that matter, his son-in-law) have such fealty to the Kingdom of Saud and some of their neighbors. Whether it's private business considerations, or arms sales agreements, or some sort of blackmail, or something else, there's clearly something there that is not publicly known. (Z)

Today in Bad Optics, Part II: McConnell's Donors

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has quickly become the poster boy for the GOP's unwillingness to improve election security. In general, the assumption is that he places his party's fortunes above the sanctity of the democracy, and believes that non-secure elections work in the Republicans' favor. However, new reporting reveals that there may be another reason: the Majority Leader has received hefty donations from the four largest manufacturers of voting machines in the country. These companies, who control roughly 95% of the industry, would be in deep trouble if states were required to use paper ballots, as the Democrats want.

We specifically put this item and the previous one together because they speak to a potential line of attack for Democrats in 2020. McConnell and Donald Trump are quite unlikable to most Democrats, many independents, and some Republicans. Some of the reasons for that unlikability overlap (like, they appear to be doing the bidding of those who give them money), but other reasons do not (like, Trump is more of a bull in a china shop, while McConnell is more sneaky and deceptive). If the blue team works hard to join them at the hip in voters' minds, not unlike what we often see with Nancy Pelosi and [fill in the name of Democratic politician here], then each could end up damaging the other. (Z)

Today in Bad Optics, Part III: Tax Cuts

The GOP tax cut does not appear to be doing much for the economy, largely because the economy was already humming along just fine before the cut. It definitely has not proven a winner with voters, such that Donald Trump and the GOP pooh-bahs never mention it anymore. Naturally, in view of this, a group of 21 GOP senators has decided that there's only one thing to do: Give wealthy folks another generous tax cut.

This effort is being led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). What Lyin' Ted and his colleagues want is for Donald Trump to issue an executive order that would index capital gains to inflation. Their stated reason is that, under just the right circumstances, the current law could compel people to pay taxes on assets that actually lost value. However, there is a reason that people invest in stocks and bonds and other capital-gains-generating instruments, and that is because they are already extremely tax-favored. If Trump were to issue the executive order, 86% of the benefit would go to the 1% wealthiest Americans. In other words, the math is virtually identical to that of the first tax cut. Cruz says that is ok because the move will "unlock capital for investment." Hey, just because trickle-down economics has failed to perform as promised every single time it's been tried doesn't mean it will fail again, right?

The senators' thinking here is clear. They know that a second tax cut won't be any more popular than the first one, and will give the Democrats more ammunition to attack the GOP as servants of ultra-wealthy interests. So, they want to put as much distance between this move and the election as they can. They could theoretically wait until the election is over, but they know they might very well not have Trump in the Oval Office much longer at that point. So, now is the time. Reportedly, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin is unenthused about the proposal, but Trump likes it, and we know how disputes like that tend to work out. The fact that the proposed executive order would be enormously profitable for, say, a wealthy businessman is just the cherry on the sundae. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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