The Morning Jolt


If You Didn’t Watch the Debate Last Night, You Were the Winner

Candidates in a Democratic presidential debate, Atlanta, Ga., November 20, 2019 (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Last night’s Democratic debate was so boring and tepid it probably won’t change anything; reform-minded Republicans drift towards having a little too much faith in the federal government; an odd comment from one of the current creative voices behind Star Wars; and a vivid demonstration of how the media has hyperventilated through much of Trump’s presidency.

You Probably Missed a Really Inconsequential Debate

This isn’t just the complaint of a right-of-center guy watching a bunch of left-of-center —  some way left-of-center — candidates talk for two hours and twenty minutes. My policy and philosophical disagreements with the candidates are my smallest gripe; I don’t go into these debates expecting to agree with anyone. Nope, the problem is that last night’s debate was boring, with all the energy of a mandatory human-resources-managed seminar on new paperwork requirements held on a Friday afternoon, when everybody’s already mentally checked out and thinking about the weekend. You would never know that last night was, on paper, do-or-die for a bunch of these candidates. If a power outage had canceled last night’s debate, almost nothing would be different this morning.

The problems all start with having ten candidates on that stage.

The Democratic National Committee was so determined to have debates where every candidate would have the opportunity to shine, that they set up a format where no one really gets the opportunity to shine. Driven by fear of being accused of unfairness, they have created a structure that serves no candidate well, meaning that the candidates who walk in with polling leads almost always walk out with the same polling leads. The networks like to promote these debates as if the fate of the country is at stake, but they get dull and repetitive before the first commercial break.

If you have ten candidates, then one of two problems arise. Oftentimes, the moderators will not-so-subtly scrap the idea that everyone should get equal time and ask the most questions of the leading candidates. Last night, Elizabeth Warren spoke for more than thirteen minutes; Andrew Yang spoke for less than seven. Pete Buttigieg spoke for just under thirteen minutes; Tom Steyer spoke for eight and Tulsi Gabbard spoke for nine. The only reason the DNC has so many candidates on stage and enforces this poll-number-and-donor-number threshold, is “fairness.” But then the network moderators say, “nah, never mind.”

The other problem that arises is that as the moderators do work their way around to give the non-frontrunners a shot, candidates disappear from the screen for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. (Yang wasn’t asked a question in the first half-hour and Gabbard got one question and exchange in the entire first hour.) The trailing candidates appear so intermittently, that it practically amounts to a cameo appearance. This means that a candidate’s good answers and exchanges come so infrequently, they barely register with viewers. Cory Booker has had good performances in every debate in the eyes of most observers, but his poll numbers haven’t moved at all.

The early two-night, 20-candidate debates required voters to commit to watching about five hours on consecutive weeknights and distinguishing among Michael Bennet, Tim Ryan, John Hickenlooper, Steve Bullock, Jay Inslee, and John Delany. As noted yesterday, there aren’t many glaring policy differences among these candidates on most issues, so viewers were treated to a series of officials largely unknown outside their home states, making variations of the same arguments.

Ninety seconds is a short period of time to discuss something complicated, like how the United States would completely eliminate the existing system of private health insurance and push all 327 million Americans into a system currently serving 44 million people. Nobody has time to get into the details, so Warren just reiterates what she wants to do, instead of how she will be able to do it: “Let’s bring as many people in and get as much help to the American people as we can as fast as we can. On day one as president, I will do — bring down the cost of prescription drugs on things like insulin and EpiPens.” You have to go online to see Warren is promising to issue an executive order that would have the federal government hire drug manufacturers to produce those medications and sell provide them to patients at prices the federal government deems fair; she has separately introduced legislation to have the federal government to start producing these and other medications itself. Warren would resolve her ongoing frustration with the pharmaceutical industry by turning the federal government into a new market competitor. This is the same federal government that approved and paid for the creation of and insisted to the American public that it worked when it did not.

If Warren said, “if elected, I will turn the United States government into a new and giant pharmaceutical manufacturer,” do you think some viewers at home might be less enthusiastic and more skeptical of how well the idea would work? Do you think they might recognize that attempting a sweeping change like that might not really generate results “on day one as president”? But we never get into this, because then it’s on to the next question for the next candidate.

The debate audiences are shrinking, and it’s not difficult to see why. Primary voters would be better served by a two-hour debate, with longer lengths of time for answers, featuring just Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg. Those are the top four candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and nationally. The next-highest candidate outside of those four in those states is Kamala Harris in South Carolina, at 6.3 percent in the RealClearPolitics average.

Meanwhile, Over in the GOP

Michael Brendan Dougherty carefully considers a Josh Hawley speech and notes how unusual it is to see a GOP senator offer a “searing piece of cultural criticism, an indictment of America’s economic and social arrangements” when a Republican president is preparing to run for reelection on record of prosperity.

Marco Rubio’s “Common Good Conservatism” and other conservatives expressing more skepticism of the free market are all fascinating, but I remain unconvinced that you’ll have a lot of success trying to fix cultural problems with federal government policy solutions. We’ve got serious and worsening troubles: addiction, suicide, cycles of despair, forgotten communities, isolation, and alienation. But if your plan is to turn to government to fix it, you’re ultimately trusting the same institution we trusted to provide medical care to veterans. The federal government has a lot of good people working for it, but they’re mostly stuck in structures and cultures that incentivize the status quo, punish risk-takers, minimize accountability and disregard efficiency. Could we change that? Maybe, but it won’t be easy, and it won’t happen quickly. The problems we face weren’t created in a small office in a federal building Washington, and they won’t be fixed there.

Do the People Currently Running the Star Wars Franchise Understand What They Have?

Can you stand something a little lighter?

First, as discussed on the recent slightly-delayed edition of the pop culture podcast, so far I’m really enjoying the new Star Wars live-action television show, The Mandalorian. It’s basically a Clint Eastwood Man with No Name-style Western set in the Star Wars universe: a quick-drawing, tight-lipped lone man trying to make an honest living in a rough and remote corner of the universe.

Back when a lot of Star Wars fans were reacting with great disappointment to The Last Jedi — and in some cases, apoplexy — I remember reading furious screeds denouncing Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and getting the sense that she had turned into a convenient scapegoat. After all, the problems with The Last Jedi are probably primarily the fault of writer and director Rian Johnson. Kennedy’s biggest mistake appeared to be letting J.J. Abrams go in one story direction for the seventh Star Wars film and then letting Johnson go in a dramatically different direction for the eighth and hoping the differences would work themselves out. (They didn’t.)

But now in a new interview with Rolling Stone, Kennedy made a comment that seems oddly uninformed about the gargantuan pop culture mythos she’s supposed to be running:

Every one of these movies is a particularly hard nut to crack. There’s no source material. We don’t have comic books. We don’t have 800-page novels. We don’t have anything other than passionate storytellers who get together and talk about what the next iteration might be.

I suppose her point is to draw a contrast with something like Marvel, where most of the characters have at least a cult following from fans reading the comic books in their younger days.

Maybe it was just a momentarily lapse of memory on Kennedy’s part, but Star Wars has a ton of source material in the form of comic books and novels. In 1991, Bantam commissioned Timothy Zahn to continue the story of the original trilogy and he published Heir to the Empire. By the mid-1990s, fans were offered about ten to twelve new Star Wars novels a year. (Almost all of the early novels featured some awesome Drew Struzan art on the cover.) Around this time, Dark Horse Comics launched a number of comic book series set after the original trilogy. A few years earlier, West End Games had launched the old role-playing game, allowing players to create their own rebels running around the galaxy fighting the Empire and exploring the world.

I’m not going to lie; the quality of these stories varies a lot. Zahn’s trilogy was perhaps the most highly regarded, and a lot of novels recycled “what’s left of the Empire has designed another superweapon” storylines. But the novels, comic books, video games, and other stories created what fans started to call the “Expanded Universe.”

When Disney bought Star Wars, they declared that future films and television series and projects would not be bound by what was written before, that that the old novels and comics were no longer considered ‘canon’ — that is, if a future screenwriter or director under Disney wanted to contradict something that had happened in the previously-written non-film materials, Disney would give them the green light. The “Expanded Universe” was erased, and this irked fans of those works. But it was understandable that Disney would want to allow its own creative teams to go in any direction they liked. You might think that the new teams might want to peruse the old materials, just for inspiration, and a few characters, like Grand Admiral Thrawn, have indeed popped up in the animated series Star Wars: Rebels and ships and characters from Star Wars: Rebels were spotted in the background of Rogue One.

But this comment from Kennedy seems a little weird; it suggests that she either doesn’t know about all the earlier expanded material or they’ve become so non-canon that she sees them as unusable in any form, even as story elements. Marvel isn’t recreating the old comics with precision; their movies take bits and pieces and concepts from various well-liked issues and storylines and blends them all together.

ADDENDUM: Erick Erickson is right; we’ve seen so many “bombshells” and “tipping points” in coverage of Trump’s presidency that people are immune to this stuff. Gordon Sondland — Trump donor, Trump appointee, part of the Trump team up until very recently — declaring “Was there a quid pro quo? . . . The answer is yes” should be seen as a big deal. The White House has been insisting for weeks that there was no quid pro quo, and their explanation is no longer operative, as they used to say in the Watergate days. But a significant chunk of the public probably sees it all as the Mueller investigation in reruns.


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