Debate Ruminations

What I’ve found most intriguing about the most recent Democratic debate is the post-debate analysis: how visceral and individual our respective reactions are. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, argues that our moral judgements are governed primarily by our emotions (he prefers the term, “intuitions”), that our powers of strategic reasoning are ancillary, and that we primarily employ our reasoning to rationalize our intuitions’ sentiments. His arguments are seemingly relevant to the way we assess candidates.

Since the debate ended, I’ve heard Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski comment upon how “presidential” U.S. MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren looked; although I believe that Sen. Warren had a good night, I don’t think she looks at all presidential. Yamiche Alcindor, the African American female PBS White House Correspondent of whom we, devoted PBS NewsHour watchers, have become quite fond, has indicated that she believes U.S. CA Sen. Kamala Harris had a strong performance; I thought Sen. Harris had some clever shots, but did nothing special. (Before I get railed upon for being sexist or racist, I would submit that we all have a tendency to appreciate that with which we identify – there was never a candidate that my father, otherwise a vehement rock-ribbed Republican, ever supported as passionately as Democrat John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic.)

Although U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. NJ Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Ms. Harris, and former U.S. TX Rep. Beto O’Rourke were all fairly good, I will join the chorus opining that since each of the frontrunners at least held their own, the three-hour marathon won’t materially alter the polls. Sens. Klobuchar and Booker have nowhere to go; to me Mr. Buttigieg’s weakness is that while he, like Presidents Kennedy and Barack Obama, is more cerebral than emotive, he lacks those worthies’ capacity to stir passions; Ms. Harris’ best moments again appeared planned and scripted, leaving one again concerned as to how she would handle President Trump, the master of the unexpected; and Mr. O’Rourke was impressive, but his aggressive positions on gun control (with which I completely agree) seemingly foreclose any meaningful chance to win a Texas U.S. Senate seat after his campaign inevitably folds.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang has apparently decided that he wants to get into the lottery business.

U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders, clearly physically under the weather, was a little too predictable and curmudgeonly, but if he loses support, it will probably go to one of the other frontrunners.

Whether motivated to withhold attacks on Mr. Biden by a Democratic team spirit or a desire to start softening her somewhat feisty image in preparation for the general election campaign, Ms. Warren maintained a positive demeanor throughout the evening. She fostered the tone that all of the Democratic candidates want what’s best for this country. Nothing occurred that would dampen the prospect of a Biden-Warren ticket (a notion that finds favor with a number of readers of these pages). She stands to be the primary beneficiary if Mr. Sanders loses supporters. She was the most responsible for making it a good night for the Democratic campaign against Mr. Trump.

Being mindful of my own predilections ;), I thought Mr. Biden had a very strong night. He was significantly more energized than in either of the first two debates. While staying above the belt, he took Ms. Warren to task for the cost of her Medicare-for-All plan right at the outset (before we, tiring at the length of this spectacle, found our minds wandering). While he got muddled a couple of times during the evening, he exhibited flashes demonstrating his foreign policy knowledge and experience: “I confronted [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro”; that Afghanistan “cannot be put together” since it is “three different countries [referring to the Pakistani-controlled east and presumably the areas respectively under the influence of the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Ghani government].” His closing, in which he talked about overcoming the deaths of his first wife, daughter, and more recently, one of his sons, was the single most authentic and effective answer of the night.

I’ve saved to the end of this note my reference to former HUD Director Julian Castro’s tawdry attacks on Mr. Biden. Taken together with my consideration of Mr. Haidt’s hypothesis that our intuitions generally govern our reasoning powers, the reactions to Mr. Castro’s salvos have given me a different perspective on how Mr. Biden might fare in any debate with Mr. Trump. When Mr. Castro pointedly and repeatedly (and incorrectly) challenged Mr. Biden’s memory, his ageist implication was sufficiently naked that the audience audibly recoiled and TLOML – no particular fan of Mr. Biden, and one (unlike her spouse) not given to vocalization during these kinds of events — spontaneously emitted an epithet about Mr. Castro that was decidedly … well, let’s just say … uncomplimentary 😉 . It brought to mind Mr. Biden’s strongest suit: We like him. Even if we have concerns that he may not still possess all of the faculties he once had … we like him. And furthermore, that in the past, we liked Franklin Roosevelt although he was patrician, we liked Harry Truman although he was common, we liked Dwight Eisenhower although (before his reelection) he was evidently physically frail, we liked Ronald Reagan although he was a bit diminished, we liked Bill Clinton although he was smarmy, and we liked Barack Obama although he was out of touch with working people.

When in the first debate, U.S. CA Rep. Eric Swalwell overtly attacked Mr. Biden because of his age, the immediate reaction was: That’s the kind of shot Trump would take. When despite disclaimers Ms. Harris implied in the first debate that Mr. Biden was a racist by raising Mr. Biden’s decades-old comments on busing, the reaction after the dust settled was: That was unfair. When Mr. Castro clumsily raised Mr. Biden’s age, the thought flashed: That’s Trump. Mr. Swalwell’s candidacy is gone. Mr. Castro’s candidacy is effectively dead. Ms. Harris’ candidacy hasn’t recovered.

So I would pose this about Mr. Biden’s ability to stand up against Mr. Trump in a debate: if Mr. Biden handles himself as well as he did in the last two debates, and Mr. Trump can’t resist attacking him in Trumpian fashion, the President will be playing into the Democrat’s hands. Drawing upon Mr. Haidt’s premises, enough of us may rationalize away Mr. Biden’s wobbles to enable him to win the debates and the presidency … because we like him.

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