My Reaction to a 1988 Democratic Primary Debate

Continuing with my analysis of past primary seasons, this is the 1988 Democratic Primary debate from Iowa. For me, without a lovable underdog like McGovern in this race, or a future larger than life figure like Reagan to study, there’s significantly less interest on my end going into this cycle. I just want to see if Dukakis really was the cream of the crop that year, or if there was an ’84 McGovern or Bernie Sanders esque figure who was a better candidate that got shut out in favor of the weak, milquetoast Centrist.

This is an interesting field, that’s for damn sure. You’ve got Gore, Biden and returning challengers from last cycle, Hart and Jackson. Jesse Jackson was a great candidate in 1984—he was passionate, exciting, and really cared about the plight of the downtrodden in society. Had America been ready for a black candidate back then, I think he might have unseated Mondale. It will be interesting to see if he’s still got that spark. Gore was a great debater in both his VP outings in the ’90s, and against Perot on Larry King, but he inexplicably lost his fire in 2000 against Bush. I know Biden plagiarized someone this cycle and had to drop out, but the question is would he have won outside of that screw up? There’s three unknowns in the field too, with Richard Gephart, Bruce Babbitt and Paul Simon. I don’t expect much of them because they didn’t go on to become household names like the rest here. Let’s see what happens.

Right off the bat, I think this moderator comes off as having a stick up his ass for scolding the audience so many times about applause. I see this has wisely been changed in current debates to allow the audience to clap at the beginning as everyone is introduced—it’s only natural they’re going to want to. (If you really don’t want to be interrupted by applause then stop filming in front of a studio audience, you idiots.) Also it seems like this debate will preserve the strange format from 1984 where the candidates can ask each other one question. This adds an interesting layer to the debate, as what someone asks can be just as revealing as their answers, and it allows a chance for the candidates to attack their opponents in a way that’s respectful and also productive to the viewers.

Opening Statements

Biden opens up by reminding the audience that all the facts and statistics that will be mentioned here represents real actual people affected, which isn’t immediately apparent just hearing a bunch of cold figures. It’s a good emotional appeal, and something I recall he did pretty well in his VP speech at the convention 20 years later. I do have to say though, he has noticeable sweat on his brow and a somewhat uncomfortable expression on his face. Millionth time—it’s a petty nitpick but this kind of thing unfortunately matters. It’s what cost Nixon his defeat against JFK almost 30 years prior. I get the feeling Biden wasn’t ready yet at this stage in his life.

Bruce Babbitt’s opening statement would not be out of place in 2016, as he describes a conversation he’s supposedly had with a farmer where he was asked why, if the rest of the world economy is growing thanks to American investment and security, we seem to be stagnating. I like the phrase he trots out, “workplace democracy” and I think I might just steal that as a re-branding of Democratic Socialism. He uses the phrase to describe how management ought to share their bonuses with the workers which made that wealth possible—another point that would surely resonate today. He also calls for a universal needs test, which is where he loses me, because this sounds more like a Conservative reigning in the budget than a liberal. But with this first impression, Babbitt has me intrigued overall. He’s like a stiffer, less exciting mixture of Trump and Bernie with a dose of moderation.

Jackson lives up to his promise from last cycle, calling for a reinvestment in America, and listing all the ways the working class are getting screwed over. He polls the audience who owns a VCR and then says no VCRs are made in the US. I love his phrase “economic justice” as well. Again, while the irrational fear and hatred of the word “Socialism” is finally eroding today, it still unfortunately exists. Phrases like these two would be great for modern leftists to use to describe what Socialism actually is without being dismissed on the word alone.

I really don’t want to like Dukakis considering what an awful general election candidate he turned out to be and apparently what a rightwing governor he had been. But I do have to say, seeing him after the last 3 is kinda like night and day. He comes off a lot more personable and natural in his mannerisms where the previous 3 guys just stared ahead blankly into the camera and didn’t change their facial expressions much. The best way I could describe it is, they appeared self-conscious where he appears more relaxed. They’re talking to the camera while Dukakis is talking to the people on the other side of it. He brags about how he brought unemployment down in Massachusetts. It’s worth noting too, that he’s the only one thus far speaking in terms of “I will” and “I believe.” He’s talking like he already has the job where the others were speaking more in general terms.

Al Gore does alright. He’s kinda stiff too, but it comes off a lot better than the first three guys. In his case, it feels more like a stone cold resolve as opposed to awkwardness. Still, he talks up small businesses and the need to cater to them, which I also see as an invasion of right-wing rhetoric into the Democrats. I have a feeling just from this opening statement that the Gore we’re going to see in the rest of this debate is gonna be somewhere between personable Gore from the ’90s and uninspiring Gore from the 2000s. His demeanor in this opening statement makes him come off as “Presidential” to me in his own way. He’s serious and steadfast and that’s a good quality in a leader. Had it been Gore going against the maladroit Bush I or boring Dole in the previous two cycles to his actual bid, I think he would have won.

Then there’s Gephardt. I think he’s a step backwards from the others in terms of his attempt at soundbites. “The heart of America’s heartland is being torn out” comes off as very forced. I also think saying America had been “challenged” to think only for ourselves during the Reagan years is wrong. He should have phrased it, that Reagan promised us we could think only for ourselves, but when we do that we lose the shared benefits society can and should offer its people. “Failed values,” as he calls it. He repeats the phrase “it’s wrong, it’s just plain wrong” one too many times and without any conviction in his voice. He should have listed his various points against Reaganism and then summed it all up with that phrase, used only once. I like how he brings it around to JFK at the end without forcing it; he subtly calls back to the contrast of JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” inaugural address compared to Reagan’s “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” inaugural but trusts the audience is smart enough to connect the dots. I came away liking Gephardt ok but he’s definitely flawed. He strikes me as a good, decent guy who’s maybe not the most charismatic, but passable.

Simon, I’m sorry to say, is nonviable from the start. Again, it’s rude and stupid, but looks matter: that dorky bow tie, the glasses, the stereotypical poindexter hairdo…he looks like a caricature of a dorky professor from a movie or TV show. Like Walter White from episode 1 of Breaking Bad. He then asserts that everyone on the stage ought to adhere to 3 basic principles and proceeds to lay them out. I think he was trying to come off as a leader dictating the terms, drawing a line in the sand for everyone else to have to match him on. But considering nothing he states is all that revolutionary and they’ve already expressed agreement one way or another in their own statements, it just feels like he’s stating the obvious. I hear that and think “…ok…they do. So why do we need you then, if by your own measure they all meet the standard anyway?” This kind of a power move might have worked if the terms he dictated were radically outside the current Democratic overton window, but popular among voters. Something like “#1, fight for Basic Income…#2 fight for universal healthcare…#3 agree to end the war on drugs.” Basically, if all the other candidates were Hillary Clinton offering unexciting, incremental at best progress, and he challenged them all to go further, faster. What’s even more bizarre, is after this he states “and if we can’t all agree on those, let’s agree on these…” and then proceeds to list three completely different policies he expects all to agree to…if they don’t agree to the previous three policies. Confused? Rolling your eyes? Yes. It just makes an already weak tactic appear even weaker. Simon’s already conceding on what he had just said were must-have positions. It’s an extraordinarily weak opening statement and unless he does something big to make up for it later, I’m immediately dismissing him as a non-contender from this point on.

First Question

With the very first question, I saw Babbit lose viability right before my eyes. You need to see it for yourself. He just gives off a “nervous bumbler” persona with how he moves, the rhythm of his voice, and how he mumbles out his answer. I think he’s a good guy for sure, but the job demands charisma as well as an ability to inspire the people who listen to you, and he just doesn’t have it.

Jackson’s rebuttal is a clear contrast with Babbit in how he speaks clearly and purposefully, directly into the camera. The fact that he had this lengthy response ready to go and doesn’t even look at his notes the whole time is stunning. This is a guy who knows his stuff and is passionate about it. Dukakis too: on a purely personal/optical level, Dukakis looks really good here thus far. I think who comes off looking the best though, is Gore, surprisingly. He goes in-depth on policy with the passion of Jackson amped up to 11. I notice Gephardt relies on historical appeals and trots out the “that’s wrong” soundbite again in his answer. (I think we get it, buddy.) Simon keeps numbering his positions again. Biden’s answer is interesting in tying farming issues to foreign policy.

I know nothing about agriculture, unfortunately, so who had the “best” answer here policy-wise is a mystery to me. Going purely on optics/oration though, I think we can safely knock the lesser known Simon and Babbitt out of the running right here and now, with the third unknown, Gephardt teetering on the edge. The big 4 who would go on to become household names all proved their worth in their own way right out of the gate. I’d say to those watching, this is the difference between tier one and tier two politicians. The big 4 are the ones with the rhetorical and charismatic chops to be plausible candidates in a national election, and the other 3 are great men with very noble ideas for sure, but just wouldn’t make the cut in any national election.

Second Question

Now the second question is more my forte. “Have the business owners become greedy or have workers been greedy in the past and priced themselves out of a job?” Depending on how someone answers this, I’d say that determines whether they get to call themselves left-wing or not, and therefore have a right to be on that stage as a Democrat.

Jackson’s answer begins with another great soundbite I think I’m gonna steal for future use, “economic violence.” He goes on to state that it’s not that Taiwan is taking our jobs so much that GM and other corporations are taking the jobs to them. A great rephrasing of Trump’s entire campaign ethos into reality. He stresses the need to tackle the incentives which cause businesses to export jobs, and stresses the need for a global livable wage. Great answer—I’m very impressed.

Dukakis gets off to a less direct, more typical “political nonanswer-y” way by bringing up the deficit. He makes a good point about how a strong dollar lessens demand abroad for US goods and how that has to factor into it. But he avoids answering the question directly, and his hubbub about the need to train workers and all the usual bullshit empty rhetoric has me rolling my eyes. Just say yes or no if workers deserve a fair wage and if you think businesses have the right to decimate whole communities to maintain their bottom line. It’s not that hard. At least right-wing conservatives will give you a straight answer and tell you why they believe it’s for the best. Dukakis, with this answer, confirms to me that true leftism was dead in the Democratic establishment by this point if he managed to get the nomination. Rather than offer real alternatives, they just played the blame game “it’s the other party’s fault!!” while offering the same empty, vague talking points and no real concrete answers. When people nowadays say they’re sick of the establishment, and the status quo, I’d say look no further than right here. The ’80s and ’90s pro-corporate, two-faced Democrats like Dukakis, Mondale and “Third Way” Clinton are exactly where this nauseating trend began. For whatever their faults, Carter, McGovern and the Fifth Party System Democrats were nothing like these jokers.

Gore continues a trend I’ve noticed thus far, where it seems like he’s trying to be the middle way between unapologetic liberal Jackson and “more electable” corporatist Dukakis. He has the stare-down and the passion of the former with the more dressed up flowery rhetoric of the latter. And here too, he takes the middle way by conceding that fiscal policy plays a role but also that we need to work together with other countries to provide a standard, as Jackson mentioned. However, while Jackson was describing a global standard wage, Gore advocates for removing “unfair” trade restrictions. (Basically beating the drum for what would become NAFTA and TPP.) I can see how, at the time, what he’s describing here would sound good, but we all know the results. (Basically, another trickle-down style policy suggestion which is pro-corporations but dressed up to sound nice to us plebeians.) I wonder how Gore feels about it all now, NAFTA and Globalism I mean. But here when it counted, when he was a candidate and VP, he promoted some of the worst decisions ever made in modern times.

Gephardt similarly lets me down with his bullshit “we can do it…with leadership!!” vacuous drivel. What a joke. Then he bizarrely pivots to education and attacking middle management. Basically just stupid, unhelpful, feel good platitudes. This guy…I wanted to like him. But it’s pretty clear after this answer he’s a Rubio-level empty suit speaking in non-answers

Simon points out the need for research, “speaking the language of the customer” education, and all the bureaucratic oversight on trade. Again, no direct answer, and a lot of only semi-related talking points, some right-wing, like having less oversight. He does better than all but Jackson on this answer though, which speaks more to the general failings of this sorry lot of self-proclaimed “liberals” than anything else.

I do like Biden’s idea of calling in industrial “captains” and the heads of influential labor unions and hearing from them what’s needed, then reaching a compromise. I loved his line about how employees deserve stock options and to share in the benefits of their company’s success. I absolutely agree with all of that. Finally, another great answer from this otherwise sorry lot.

Bruce Babbit wins back a lot cred from me as well by pointing out an example of a corporation demanding its employees take a pay cut, then the Directors turning around and giving themselves raises for “solving the problem.” Frustratingly, he continues to look like a bumbler when he stops talking, asks aloud if his times up, and then gets going again. What he says next is so true as well, the divide between managers, to say nothing of the far removed Directors and CEOs, and the workers. They absolutely need to come together. Its sickening that one lives off the labor of the other and yet has no conception of their conditions and struggles making things happen on the proverbial front lines. Whether you’re a die-hard Capitalist or a Social Democrat, we ALL ought to be able to agree on that. I do like what Babbit has to say, I just hate the boring, uninspiring way in which he says it.

So, with this key question finished, we can split the candidates in half yet again. Jackson, Biden [somewhat surprising considering his current 2020 campaign] and Babbitt are, without question, the only true liberals on that stage. The other four are wolves in sheep’s clothing, the kind largely responsible for our current mess. Many of the Globalist bullshit, and the flowery non-action promises we’ve come to loathe today saw their first breath of life in ’84 and ’88.

Third Question

The next question is about small businesses. Dukakis reiterates a lot of what he’s said before, and maybe it’s his unsatisfying answers thus far, but by now I think his loud twangy voice and looking out over the audience has lost its charm. He comes off as fed up at this point in the debate, like the process is beneath him, and it’s grating to listen to, especially if there’s little real value in what hes saying. Gore got booed for it, but I personally loved it when he came in saying “We need some specifics” as he turned to look Dukakis in the eye. He was taking no nonsense from his peers and that’s always commendable.

Gore lost points with me last question when he revealed his Globalist/Neoliberal side, but it’s clear he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to small businesses. His plan is very extensive. Gephardt, by this point, I’ve lost all respect for. “The only way to get small town America’s small business back in business is if we get the agricultural sector back in business!” Give me a break. It’s one thing to be a Reagan-analog fertilizer salesman spinning feel-good buzzwords…but at least be good at it, goddamnit. This guy has no specific policy ideas, and his “wordplay” is a total joke–repeating the same word four times in a sentence isn’t clever or catchy, it’s pathetic. It’s harsh, but by this point, I’d go as far as say that having him on the stage is a waste of valuable time. Simon pushes the need for creativity and research again, which seems to be his niche. Biden talks about attracting people into rural America to stimulate growth there.

Babbitt builds on that idea, but offers a specific plan how to do it. Unlike Gephardt, Babbitt is increasingly growing on me as this debate drones on. He lacks the level of charisma and excitement which is necessary to run for President, but he’s a very likable man. His soft-spoken nature I found especially endearing in this answer as he looked into the camera and described his plan for redevelopment. Like McGovern, Babbit gives off that kindly neighborhood Uncle persona which draws me to want to absorb his wisdom despite a lack of gravitas.

Jackson though, once again, knocks it out of the park with his metaphor about a barracuda that killed all the small fish in a pond. He blames the death of small businesses on the large businesses going overseas, killing communities so people have no money to spend at local businesses, and that being a vicious cycle. It’s so true, and he was so ahead of the curve to say all this as it was happening. Even now many politicians won’t talk about this. He gets a subdued round of applause for it, showing that the voters themselves had yet to understand what they were in for. Jackson was a modern Cassandra whom no one heeded because he was black.

Fourth Question

Next question is about regulation of the banking, airline and petroleum industries. Again, Gore lost significant points with me for his answer to the second question, but I love his answer here. He’s clearly a policy wonk even if you don’t always agree with him, similar to Hillary. I like how he acknowledges that deregulation has had the opposite intended effect in industries like the airlines, and allowed a smaller number of mega-corporations to take over and force their own rules by throwing their weight around and knocking the smaller companies out. Here, Gephardt too regains some stature in my eyes. He’s still talking in vague generalities and not hard concrete policy, but in this case he hits it on the nose by harping on the Social Darwinist, survival of the fittest mentality of Reaganomics and how this has been toxic for America. He finally hits a soundbite that sticks.

Simon calls for less mergers and harsher anti-trust laws. Considering the conglomeration of most If not all industries today, he too is right on the nose here. I’m happy to see Biden call out how deregulation has allowed corporations to break unions, particularly the air traffic controllers. Babbitt concurs, and harps on how accidents and environmental disasters have increased because of deregulation. Jackson builds on what everyone else has said by pointing out all the other industries deregulated which haven’t been discussed yet. Really, they all have the same united voice on this topic, and this is the first question thus far where I respected everyone’s answer…except Dukakis. Perhaps it’s because it had all already been said why deregulation is bad, but rather than talk about that, he pivots into discussing how air traffic alone is insufficient and America needs a new highway system. I’m just left here scratching my head like what? Luckily he does get back to the topic by the end of his spiel, but again by this point I’m sick of him never giving real straight answers. Everything with Dukakis seems to be buried in a heap of misdirection.

Last Question

Final question is about the deficit. Gephardt finally seems to completely come alive in this answer, and offers a series of concrete policies rather than hot air talking points as before. Biden borrows a line from Gore and talks about how the perception of Democrats as fiscally irresponsible means they better have SPECIFICS when it comes to paying for their proposed programs, and he does a great job describing a few ways money could be raised. One thing Babbitt mentions, which may not be popular but certainly has a lot of truth to it, is ending subsidies on agriculture. (I’ve said as much myself, specifically when it comes to our ridiculous, detrimental subsidies on corn. That wouldn’t be a popular thing to say here in Iowa, but it’s accurate.) He also proposes a progressive consumption tax. This is a very progressive idea that doesn’t get talked about enough. I’d like to discuss the idea more in depth somewhere else, but the fact he suggests it raises my respect for him even more. Jesse Jackson talks about cutting the military excesses including Star Wars and that the wealthy must pay their share. Dukakis brags about how he’s balanced budget as governor. Gore builds on the answers with other examples of how spending can be cut.

Asking Each Other Questions

With that, the candidates then move on to asking each other questions. Honestly, as soon as Dukakis got interrupted not 30 seconds into answering the first question from Simon, I knew this whole section was gonna be a wash. In a format where the moderator asks everyone one question, its easier to cut off at anytime you need to once time has run short. But in this format, since it’s pointless and unfair if everyone can’t propose a question, and get asked one in turn, it forces the responses to be ridiculously brief if they’re going to cram it all in. Plus, only one candidate is allowed to address each question, which means we can’t compare solutions and decide who has the best plan—which I always thought was kinda the whole reason to even have a debate in the first place.

It’s important to realize presidential election debates were still fairly new around this time and all the kinks had yet to be worked out. It’s interesting to see these various ideas experimented with at the early primaries on both sides, and how ultimately we’ve whittled it down to the classic moderated structure we have today. (I still maintain though that we ought to try a Lincoln-Douglass style. The pop quiz/game show vibe that I get from modern debating and having to cram complicated policy discussions into 30 sec to 2 minute soundbites is only further amplified in this format.)

The lone highlight of this section comes when Gore asks Gephardt why in the world he supported Reaganomics in 1981 to a round of applause. Gephardt does explain the situation well, though that betrayal still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. By itself, this would already be a huge blow to him, and with his mostly useless answers up to this point, he’s dead to me. Completely useless, a Democrat in name only.

Closing Remarks

Then we come to the closing remarks. I liked Simon’s line about Robin Hood in reverse regarding the policies of Reagan. Whether I agreed with them or not, this debate has been full of great soundbites all around (except Gephardt who tried the hardest to succeed at it.)

Speak of the devil, Gephardt steals Biden’s line from his opening statement about how behind the statistics and numbers are real human lives. I do like his point about how the youngest Americans have become the most cynical and the moral failing which this represents for the establishment. (The modern post-Bernie DNC ought to take note, as should the boomers.) But my god, even right after a genuinely great line, he fucks it up. “The air was full of dreams, and it was ok to dream those dreams…” Dude…you’re not JFK, you’re not Goldwater…you might even be worse than Humphrey. Stop trying to be some kind of eloquent wordsmith up there–you suck at it. And the sad thing is, he says the word “dreams” like 4 more times in his 2 minute statement.

Gore harps on the need for specifics again, and the need for vigorous discussions.

Dukakis talks about arms reduction and takes another swipe at Gore (they’ve had a snippy back and forth going on the last few questions up to this point.)

Jackson assures everyone there is hope and calls on them to fight for [lists several more examples of “economic violence” as he calls it.]

Babbitt reiterates the need for “workplace democracy” and then, I couldn’t believe it, reuses Gephardt’s own anecdote about meeting disgruntled young voters and how their cynicism is bad for our country. A stunning weak bit of rhetoric from a man otherwise full of great policy ideals. Obviously these closing statements were written and memorized in advance, but dammit man, you gotta be able to think on your feet. At least alter it a little after hearing Gephardt, or say something to the the effect of: “like Senator Gephardt, I too have seen how the youth has lost hope…” Even for all his warm sincerity, Babbit proves why he would never succeed in a national race in this botched moment.

Finally, Biden ironically cribs a line from Reagan about how America is the world’s last, best hope for economic freedom in the world, so we better not blow it. That line comes from “The Speech” which has since established itself as the most iconic call to arms for the right-wing in America’s history. Very strange to see it referenced here, and perhaps another sign of how the Republican rhetoric had overtaken the Democrats by this point in time.

Conclusion

Overall, this was a very interesting debate. I find it strange that my perception on a lot of the participants did a 180 as it went on. I started off thinking Gephardt was a tad awkward but ultimately endearing, yet by the end of it I found him to be the weakest candidate on the stage by far. Contrarily, I found Babbitt to be a joke in the beginning, but his genuinely leftist ideals and soft-spoken tone won me over by the end. I don’t believe he’d have done well in the general election, but I do think he comes off as very sweet and his ideas ought to have been the backbone of the party at this time. Biden I think, would have been the most electable person. He comes off as another genuine liberal, he’s well spoken, charismatic enough to get the point across and certainly enough to hold his own next to Bush, and he knows policy. Where he shines over Babbitt is that he has more specifics to hash out.

Al Gore is ferocious in this debate. He comes off like a straight, no-nonsense attack dog. He calls Dukakis out on his shit more than once, has specifics to offer, and commands attention. He would have had a good shot at beating Bush this cycle. Simon is the most forgettable person in the room by far; basically he’s the perfect example of a token opposition candidate. Dukakis came away looking like one of the bottom tiered candidates by the end. What I found likable in the beginning gave way to cloying fodder that inspired many an eye-roll by the end. He really does come off like the milquetoast, Republican-Lite turn-cloak I’ve been told he was as Governor.

The best candidate overall, I think, is Jackson once again. He’s a straight talking unapologetic liberal in a time when many higher ups in the party were abandoning that ethos. He speaks directly to the camera, addresses the audience openly, and gives helpful analogies as well as specific policy ideas. He attacks corporations mercilessly, which is refreshing to see now when all but Bernie in this cycle are kissing the billionaire’s boots. He should have been the nominee, either last cycle or this one. I think, sadly, the only reason he didn’t do better is because he was black. (And I’m usually not one to throw “ism” accusations around lightly, for what that’s worth.)

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