When a morning television host asked CBS White House reporter Major Garett for his take on who won the first night of Democratic debates, Garett surprised him by refusing.
He noted that over time, voters would tell the rest of us about winners and losers, and that, if we had learned anything from the last election, it should have been that reporters shouldn’t tell voters who won.
It’s a good thing to keep in mind. The results of these debates — more joint appearances than actual debate — are largely temporary, with moments that pop for one candidate or another only to disappear. We’re so insistent on finding “winners” that we may fail to hear the information being offered as complex answers to real problems.
Actually, I doubt these two nights of debates changed many minds; certainly, they will not draw Trump voters to support any of the Democrats who took part. Among Democratic voters, for starters, it still seems early enough in the process that we don’t have strong feelings for or against one candidate or another. But the process itself seems more set up to find people who make serious gaffes or mistakes rather than someone who can take us through complicated problems.
So, naturally, we tend to recognize first the individuals who are doing best in polling. Garrett noted, for example, that more questions in the first night went to Elizabeth Warren, giving an impression that she is the most important voice. Of course, she answered with the clearest, direct answers of anyone on either stage.
No Way to Hire Someone
In any event, these types of mass debates seem an unwieldy and odd way to hire someone to work for us. Were we to be hiring for any other job, we would not throw questions seeking one-word answers from 10 or 20 candidates at a time. In this case, we’re hiring someone to deal with some of the thorniest policy questions around, and we’re expecting a one-word response identifying the globe’s most significant geopolitical threat?
Last night’s 10 candidates took no time at all to rectify the first night of debates by immediately going after Donald Trump as someone who has aided the rich at the expense of the middle- and working-classes, as someone who has ripped America’s moral values, as someone who has lost American allies for a policy of isolationism, and as a leader who has divided the country. The anti-Trump talk came machine-gun-like up and down the entire Democratic line.
Shots at Biden and Sanders
There were some shots at Joe Biden as the current polling leader, particularly on the issues of generational leadership. But there were challenges against Bernie Sanders as well, especially over the details of Medicare-for-all. Kamala Harris stood out for getting her colleagues to stop talking over each other, earning applause for saying “Hey guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight–they want to know how we are going to put food on their table.” She was less generous ripping into Biden for a vote many years ago opposing federally funded school busing.
Again, the serious note that came through was that we have a choice in just how activist a government we want, and therefore the standard-bearer to go with that choice.
Almost predictably, the candidates argued over “socialism” versus “capitalism,” about how evil health insurers are, about how Trump has blown it on trade and tariff policies. Mostly, each took pains to promote his or her own background and experience.
Trump tweeted from the G-20 summit in Japan that “All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”
In general, there was no dearth of pointed remarks. Whether those result in more votes for one candidate or another remains uncertain, of course. Major Garrett would be proud that we’re not picking winners from the night.