The Morning Jolt


Why Last Night’s Debate Was Both Comically Bad and Painfully Annoying

From left: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro pose before the start of the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why last night’s Democratic presidential primary debate was so bad; a suddenly hot issue that surprisingly never came up last night; an important and under-discussed detail about that Trump resort in Scotland; and a very important appointment for this weekend.

The Democratic Debates Have Curdled from Somewhat Illuminating to Bad

Last night is when the Democratic presidential primary debates shifted from mildly entertaining showcases of comically overambitious narcissists with little to no self-awareness — “I’m ready to be commander-in-chief on day one because in the House, I’ve introduced a bill that would —” to a genuinely annoying group exercise in ritualized belief that bumper-sticker slogans can fix the world, that most of the country’s problems go away once Donald Trump is no longer president, and that anecdotes prove it.

Readers, you know I have plenty of beefs with President Trump. Some of you write in to let me know you disagree, and some of you let me know that you’re tired of me pointing out where Trump gets it wrong. But I have no illusions — if somebody else steps into the Oval Office on January 21, 2021, the country’s still going to have big, complicated problems. We have 7.2 million job openings, but most of the people who are unemployed either aren’t qualified or aren’t near where the jobs are. We still are struggling with opioid addiction and suicides, with the longest sustained decline in expected lifespan in a century. Amidst prosperity and a decline in crime, we have these dark underground subcultures of “Columbiners,” and “Incels,” and hate groups: angry young men eager to lash out through violence and justify it all with an incoherent manifesto. We’re dependent upon technology in so many ways, but we don’t know if we can trust technology. The world still has terrorists, hostile states, aggressive and expansion-minded powers. Whether or not you buy into the particulars of climate change, we’re a country that loves to live on the coast and build it bigger and more expensive every time — even though powerful hurricanes are a fact of life.

Trump-bashing is a really useful crutch for every candidate on that stage. No matter how the moderators ask, “what would you do on this issue?” the candidates can offer some version of, “I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t do what Trump has done, because he’s done X, Y, and Z and that’s destroying the American dream/dividing us/corrupting the ideals of America/leaving a worse world for our children.” Cue audience applause.

These debates would be so much more edifying, useful, and revealing if there was no audience, and no candidate felt the need to try to awkwardly shoehorn in an applause line at the end of their answer. Judging from the transcript, the audience applauded 136 times last night. This isn’t Saturday Night Live or a sporting event; we don’t need to hear “WHOOOOO” when a candidate promises to create a special White House office for hate crimes and white supremacy, as Cory Booker did last night. If creating a special White House office focusing on a problem solved it, the country would have no problems.

Almost everything that was bad about last night’s debate stemmed from having ten candidates on stage. The answers were limited to a minute and 15 seconds because ABC News didn’t want to leave candidates quiet for a half-hour at a time. The debate was scheduled to be three hours long — mercifully, it actually ran about two hours and forty-five minutes, because there are ten candidates on stage and the moderators wanted to cover a lot of issues. As much as the candidates want to believe that that there are glaring and consequential differences among them in policy, those differences are hard to articulate without getting into the weeds, which is difficult to explain in 75 seconds. So the night turns into a competition of emoting and who can tell the best anecdote about an average American they met on the campaign trail who is dealing with a problem that only the candidate can solve.

The fact-checkers will have their hands full, to the extent their efforts make any difference.

Former vice president Joe Biden declared, “comparing this president to the president we have is outrageous, number one. We didn’t lock people up in cages. We didn’t separate families. We didn’t do all of those things, number one.” That’s just flat-out false; immigrants at border processing facilities were kept in chain-link enclosures during the Obama administration, too.

As many irritated conservatives have pointed out, the Associated Press file photo that accompanies many articles about the Trump administration’s policy was taken in 2014 at a Customs and Border Protection facility in Nogales, Ariz. And the Obama administration did separate families, but on a case by case basis, not as an explicitly recommended policy.

Biden also declared “nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime,” which no doubt thrilled viewers like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. The vice president will be walking that one back soon.

Our John McCormack caught Elizabeth Warren insisting that the assault weapons ban failed to pass in 2013 because of “corruption, pure and simple.” McCormack noted that it received only 40 votes — 16 Democrats joined 44 Republicans in opposition. That’s a lot of broad and bipartisan “pure and simple corruption.”

Andrew Yang offered Democrats a reassuring fairy tale: “Why are we losing to the fossil fuel companies? Why are we losing to the gun lobby and the NRA? And the answer is this, we all know, everyone on this stage knows that our government has been overrun by money and corporate interests.” Right, right. It has nothing to do with how people vote, and that those 16 Democrats and 44 Republicans knew that if they voted for the assault weapons ban, they would likely get tossed out of office by their constituents.

Bernie Sanders declared, “we have the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on earth.” He’s exaggerated a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that put the U.S. in the middle of 38 countries studied; there are 195 countries on earth. The frustrating thing is that Sanders could have said, “too many American children live in poverty, and we should do everything we can to bring that number to zero” and everyone across the political spectrum would agree.

Beto O’Rourke called the El Paso shooting an “act of terror, that was directed at our community, in large part by the president of the United States.” Trump says a lot of controversial, incendiary, and ill-considered things, but it is a damnable lie to contend that Trump directed the shooter to kill Latinos in a Walmart.

Presidential elections are decisions. If you think the electorate hasn’t gotten it right in some of the past elections, it’s likely that part of the problem stems from what sort of information the public is using to make the decision, and I don’t just mean disinformation on social media from the Russians. Do the voters recognize that the president is not a king? Do they realize that most of these proposals must be enacted by legislation, not executive orders, and that to become law they must get majorities in the House and Senate — and 60 votes, if the filibuster is intact? Do they understand that everything they want to enact into law has to be considered constitutional by the Supreme Court? The only person who uttered the word “Constitution” last night was Joe Biden. No wonder the online progressives can’t stand him; he keeps reminding them about reality.

Do the voters understand that some problems in American life are probably not solvable? While the government can take steps to reduce poverty and maximize the opportunities for a better life, there is no country on earth that has completely eliminated poverty. (I suppose if you want to count Vatican City. Separately, it’s worth noting that global poverty has been cut in half since 2000. All that international trade is good for something!) “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

The Missing Issue of the Night Was . . .

By the way, something that didn’t come up at all, which surprised me: Trump calling for a ban on flavored vaping products. Put vaping, flavored or unflavored, on that long list of “Things I Don’t Like and Don’t Do Myself, but Don’t Want the Federal Government Banning.”

About Those Stays at Trump Hotels . . .

The headline: “The U.S. Air Force has lodged crews at President Donald Trump’s Scotland resort up to 40 times since 2015, a figure that is far higher than previously known.” Wow, that sounds bad!

Deeper in the story: “The Air Force has significantly ramped up its overnight stops in Scotland under Trump after signing a contract with the Prestwick Airport — situated 20-plus miles from Turnberry — in the waning months of the Obama administration. Since 2015, the service has lodged crews in the area 659 times, meaning up to 6 percent of those stays were at Turnberry.”

Wait, 6 percent? That’s it? If this is a scheme to funnel government money to the Trumps, someone’s doing a terrible job. And the fact that this deal was signed before Trump was president suggests that at some point, someone in the Pentagon thought it made sense to have crews stay at the resort. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it doesn’t appear that the decision was driven by a desire to enrich Trump.

ADDENDA: Okay, last sales pitch to readers in northern Virginia and the DC area. I’m doing a book signing Sunday at 1 p.m. for Between Two Scorpions at the Barnes and Noble in Mosaic District. A lot of Sundays, my family and I go to the farmer’s market. If it isn’t the biggest farmer’s market in the area, it’s pretty close, and it runs year-round. Sunday at 1 p.m., There’s parking in a couple of garages in the Mosaic complex. It’s a 15-minute walk or a short Uber or Lyft ride from the Dunn-Loring Metro stop.


The Latest