My Reaction to Another 1988 Democratic Primary Debate

The Iowa primary gave me a good idea of who everyone is this cycle, but the field of candidates was interesting enough to where I wanted to take a second look. I’m not gonna take the time to summarize each person’s answers like I did for the Iowa debate. If there are any highlights, or a candidate has a noticeably better or weaker performance overall, I’ll comment on that.

I do want to say upfront that this format is terrible. Unlike Iowa, here the moderator asks the questions to only one candidate and there are only so many rebuttals allowed–no set amount, just however many the moderator arbitrarily decides each time. It’s therefore not even a real debate as far as I’m concerned because, again, we’re robbed of the opportunity to compare answers which is the whole point. It’s basically a joint press conference. What’s worse, the moderator by his own discretion gets to decide who’s specifically allowed to respond and whose voice is ignored in the interests of time. These stipulations give the moderator a ridiculously unfair, unaccountable “kingmaker” power and it robs us of potentially great articulations by the other candidates. I’m really curious who thought this was a good idea, because this style is the worst I’ve ever seen by far. I get the logic behind some of the other quirky ideas in these early debates, like having the candidates ask each other questions. But this format makes no sense whatsoever unless we accept the obvious–the media wants more control over the process and the ability to shut down candidates they don’t want.

Gary Hart is actually back on stage this time. It seems he reentered the race after initially dropping out when he was caught having an affair. The moderator makes a lame joke about these circumstances and rightly gets booed for it. This seemed to get under Hart’s skin because he calls the moderator out on it the very first chance he gets to speak, and receives a round of applause for defending himself. I don’t buy the mod’s excuse that “I meant you loved the Democratic Party in May, and now you still love it in December!” That was a transparently weak comeback, and it’s pretty clear from the grumbling that the audience felt so too. He should have just sincerely apologized, said it was a misguided attempt to add some levity to the proceedings, he didn’t mean to disparage Hart’s candidacy, and moved on. (It wouldn’t have been true, the mod was clearly being malicious, but it at least would have diffused the tension and gave him a plausible out.)

ASIDE: Notice though, how disapproving this audience is of any kind of put down or joke or impartiality being inserted into these dignified proceedings? Compare this reaction, to today’s shit show version of primary and general election debates. The difference is stunning. The bar has fallen so far it’s honestly depressing to go back and see how things used to be.

All that said, I’m not sure why Hart bothered coming back at all. He was a weak candidate in 1984, even against the dead-man-walking opponent, Mondale. Add a scandalous affair hanging over his head and you can forget about it. He needed a knockout performance from ’84 and in the debate here to even justify coming back in the race, and he didn’t deliver. The moderator was out of line with his joke, but I’m sure deep down no one took his candidacy seriously anyway.

Biden is noticeably absent. I need to brush up on if his plagiarizing scandal had already happened and caused him to drop out by this point. In any case, he’s missed, since he was one of the more likable and progressive people from the last outing. I say get Simon off there and put Biden back on.

Jackson stands up for the Palestinians while still being unarguably pro-Israel. He’s the only one of the stage to bring them up at all. Once again, Jackson is by far the most progressive candidate there and far ahead of his time. Had he run in the 2000s (and not been a flawed individual outside his policy positions) I feel like he might have won.

I notice Babbitt and especially Gephardt have considerably improved since Iowa. Babbitt still has a soft spoken tone, but he comes off as more confident and even stands up for himself when the moderator attempts to fact check him and Gore tries to interrupt. I think someone must have told Gephardt that he’s not the poetic soundbite generator he thinks he is, because this time around there’s no awkward phrases being shoved down your throat at every opportunity. He just answers questions like a normal person, and is all the better for it.

I like Dukakis’ talking point about how labels mean nothing anymore, and he uses Reagan’s failure to balance a budget while calling himself a conservative as an example. This is probably the most spot on thing Dukakis ever said. (But it applies to his own party having the audacity to call themselves “liberal” at this point just as much as it does to the Republicans.) Interestingly, Dukakis would try to use this “the labels don’t mean anything” point in the general debates, but in that instance, it came off as a weak answer, because it was in response to Bush calling him the most liberal governor. (So, it felt like a phony deflection on the part of Dukakis, running away from his own values as opposed to a prescient observation.) This is a great example of how context can make a line great or bad, and also a case of Dukakis being the very embodiment of what he bemoans here. He seems to think saying “the labels don’t matter” is an excuse to do whatever he wants, not a call to arms to restore traditional Democratic values.

I don’t like how this moderator constantly steamrolls candidates who want to respond in the name of “moving things along,” but then consistently allows Dukakis to speak over Babbitt and Hart with impunity. Time is apparently so limited, but the establishment favorite can eat up everyone else’s limited chances to be heard without getting admonished? Very suspect, and in any case very poor moderation. Just as Hart and Dukakis were starting to get a good back and forth going (which is what debates are supposed to be all about) the moderator shuts them up to go to a new question.

I do admire Hart for having a budget prepared, and agree to an extent with his challenge that all candidates for President ought to be able to produce one. Even though Congress controls the purse, a President should know exactly how to pay for any promises he makes. And it could be a tool to garner support if it’s a good budget: “vote for the Democrats if you want to see this budget go into effect!” I gotta admit too that I found Hart increasingly sympathetic as this debate wore on and he weathered the moderator’s bias.

The Q&A session from the audience is even worse because now the window to answer is so ridiculously small they barely even have time to form a coherent statement, much less address the issue with any kind of substance. This one really should be studied as an example of quality over quantity in terms of debate questions, a lesson in how NOT to structure one of these. What good is it to “keep things moving” and pitch a dozen inquiries if you can’t compare answers between candidates and now, can’t even hear the person’s fully thought-out response at all? This is why, once again, I advocate for a Lincoln Douglas style debate format, at least for the first outing, and then maybe a town hall for later debates.

Hart gives an impassioned defense of his character and record when asked about it by a student who insinuates that Hart’s scandals opened him up to blackmail and make him untrustworthy. Like Gephardt and Babbitt, Hart seems to have learned from his mistakes in past contests. He’s no longer the bland, empty-suit, “new ideas!” candidate. It’s a genuine shame Hart only seemed to find his voice here (or possibly in later ’84 debates I haven’t seen) when it was too late. I don’t feel that an adulterous fling should necessarily disqualify a candidate from being president. (The exception is something like John Edwards, when your poor wife is dying of cancer!) For the record, I don’t think a really lame, forced comparison to a damn fast food commercial ought to knock a person out of the running either. (That tactic reflected as badly on Mondale and worse on the audience.) In short, Hart was screwed over both times and deserved to lose for more honorable reasons.

Anyway, it’s Babbit and Gephardt, coincidentally, who are given the opportunity to respond to this question about Hart’s affair. I like how they both opt to take the high road and agree that “character” matters in context of stance on the issues, not private life. That’s the way it ought to be, within reason.

Hart’s closing statement was wonderful, maybe the best in any debate I’ve seen yet. It’s amazing how the passion and courage emerged when his career was on the line.

It’s hilarious how Simon cites Humphrey as this great ideological leader. Aside from his appeal to embrace integration at the 1948 DNC, nothing I’ve read or seen of Humphrey ever really made me feel that way about him.

Dukakis was by far the least remarkable candidate on this stage in terms of rhetoric and stand on policy. Considering how Babbitt and Gephardt significantly improved since Iowa, that makes Duke now unquestionably the weakest in terms of oration and gravitas as well. It’s a wonder he won, and I don’t think he deserved to considering what an unusually strong field this was. Jackson remains the best overall candidate, but Hart made a surprisingly strong showing too. Aside from maybe Simon, I’m confident anyone on stage would have done better than Dukakis in the general.

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