My Reaction to a 1992 Democratic Primary Debate

Realistically, I don’t think anyone could have ever beaten Bill Clinton in this primary—the guy was a determined, charismatic juggernaut. But I hate his “third way” policies and his political legacy, so I’m wondering if that was inevitable because everyone was conceding ground to the right wing this cycle, or if he just happened to be the worst person there (ideologically speaking) and we just fucked up by nominating him. I found a lot more debates where all the candidates were still included this time around. (Normally after the first 3 debates or so a bunch of people drop out.) This made it tough to choose which videos to watch. I’d normally choose Iowa and New Hampshire since they’re often the earliest time debates are held, but of course, those were the two that didn’t seem to be available. That leaves us with South Dakota.

I was expecting Gore to make a return, but I guess not. From what I recall though, Bush was considered unbeatable because his popularity was so high post-Gulf War. So I assume the top-contenders like Mario Cuomo, Gore and Biden were choosing to sit this one out. Instead, besides Bill, we have Jerry Brown, Bob Kerry, Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin and Larry Agran. It sounds like this primary came just after New Hampshire, so we’re still very early in the race—no one’s gotten complacent in their lead, or desperate enough to act hyper aggressive in their deficit.

The moderator made me nervous when he said this debate would be broken into 6 segments—but I breathed a massive sigh of relief when he clarified that this meant a discussion of 5 specific topics and then closings statements. It appears then that the ’90s was when the people running these finally got their heads out of their asses and realized what a debate’s all about. Just ask the candidates the same questions, or present the same topics, let them all answer and then the audience compares who has the best position on each issue. It’s really that simple: no stupid, obnoxious guest questioners inserting their own agendas or gimmicky “ask each other questions!!” segments needed. Now, finally, we have a real debate (ridiculous time restrictions aside), not a glorified quiz show.

First Impressions

Very quickly into the debate, you see things get pretty heated between Bill and Jerry Brown. I’ve seen a famous clip from the Chicago debate where the two were at each other’s throats, so I knew at some point either Brown was desperate to take Clinton down or his true feelings came out. I guess here we see the seeds of that rivalry.

Watching that aforementioned clip of Brown accusing Clinton of funneling Arkansas state money into his wife’s law firm, I saw him as a brave guy sticking up against the Clinton machine in its infancy. But Jerry begins to come off badly to me once he’s asked about education in South Dakota and how underpaid the teachers are in spite of the fact SD schools tend to produce among the best students in the country. He makes a really rude “joke” asking what the problem is—they’re producing good stuff cheaply—which I’d expect from a Republican. That kind of “obsessed only with the bottom line” talk belongs to a fiscal conservative, not a supposed liberal. He wouldn’t think it was so funny if his mom or his sister was an underpaid, overworked teacher. Nor would he be laughing if his hard work was getting overlooked by Washington. People deserve to be rewarded for results, and teachers, which are arguably the most important job out there, deserve more respect than people like Jerry give them. He also comes off pretty awkwardly with his nervous energy hand gestures. Brown looks kind of uncomfortable up there.

It was around one third of the way in when I noticed literally nobody except Clinton or Brown have made any real impression whatsoever. Not a good sign.

Brown goes on a rant about how he wouldn’t give a penny to any foreign aid until every American is taken care of. I agree on principle, but in practice I acknowledge this is pretty unfeasible. I’m sure even Brown knows this, but is just putting on a show for the voters. It’s at this moment however, when Larry Agran really steps up to the plate and calls Brown out for his hypocrisy lecturing the other candidates about special interest money and not listening to the people when he himself does the same thing. It’s an exciting maneuver, the first genuinely thrilling debate attack since Gore called Gephardt out on his vote for the Reagan tax cuts, and I made a point to pause the video and Google Agran as a result. I see he was largely ignored by the media during this race, and often barred from attending most of the debates. I’m not sure yet why that might be, but whatever the reason, it’s shameful. It appears I’ve found my underdog of the cycle—but do his ideas match with mine?

I’m growing bored with this debate as it goes on and focuses solely on farmers (it is South Dakota after all)—a topic I don’t know or care much about personally. I’m glad I decided to watch it for no other reason than it seems to be the only one on CSPAN that included Agran. Also, by this point, it’s becoming even clearer to me why Bill Clinton won this primary. The rest of these guys are largely forgettable, quiet, and as Clinton even states, they don’t answer the questions. Brown stands out but not in a good way. He may very well be squeaky clean and a good man but his answers thus far and general demeanor make me feel put off by him. He gives off an air of un-trustworthiness where Clinton, despite ushering in a new era of political corruption in the Democrats, comes off like a fun simple country boy. (An act he carefully honed over the years, of course, same with W Bush’s fake accent.)


Finally, almost halfway through, we move on to a new topic—healthcare. Bob Kerry’s healthcare plan sounds pretty interesting: a guaranteed health plan for every American, budgeted at the national level and managed at the state level. He points out we’re the only industrialized nation which doesn’t guarantee health care to its people. Agran’s plan doesn’t sound as detailed, but he does stress that there ought to be “reproductive choice” included in any national health plan— abortions and birth control must be covered. He goes further to state that alcohol and drug rehabilitation ought to be covered too. Brown advocates for a single payer system similar to Canada’s. He points out Truman and Ted Kennedy have been advocating similar plans for decades.

Clinton says there needs to be a second fund for rural areas or else that still won’t solve the problem of a lack of doctors in rural areas, and he blames Bush for gutting healthcare, but fails to offer a comprehensive plan like the others. Tsongas’ plan sounds like Obamacare minus the intended public mandate, basically “the free market will solve it!” crap. He can’t even seem to get excited about it himself, and rather than defend it against the other candidates, he focuses his answer on saying “Bush is worse though!!” (Basically the conversation-ender which Centrist Democrats have been throwing at Progressives to try to shut us up for decades.) Harkin talks about getting grants out to rural states, gives a sob story about his past from a rural state.

I love what Kerry, Agran and Brown talked about in that segment. Their health plans would be magnificent if we could have them today. With Bill, I still don’t know where he stands based on that carefully hidden non-answer. He seemed to attack his competition’s plans without offering his own, but still making it sound as though he was on their side. That’s an art. Tsongas has lost my interest completely with that right-wing bill that wouldn’t change a thing. He belongs at the GOP primaries with that proto-Obamacare bunk. And Harkin has his heart in the right place but he didn’t put forth a plan either, just brag about what he’s already done and what the moderator just said isn’t going far enough. Typical hallow jargon from a career politician.

Other Topics

I liked Agran’s answer about the environment, and it leads to another great moment where the other candidates try to shut him down and he hits back hard. I think the other Democrats’ hostility must be because Agran was a mayor and not a governor or Senator, but if that’s the case I’d call it unwarranted bullying. The Presidency doesn’t stipulate a set requirement for previous government experience (though in my opinion it should) and as long as someone has an idea for how to improve our country they are entitled to run.

Brown wants to phase out nuclear power, which is just ludicrous. Bill Clinton’s response on the environment is by far his best, most in-depth answer yet. Harkin also wants to phase out nuclear in favor of natural gas (!) and that’s a disqualifier right there as far as I’m concerned.

On native American issues, Brown acknowledges our ancestors committed genocide against them and even has some nice things to say specifically about their culture. Agran says the President and Secretary of State should meet with the Indian tribes as equals, apologize, and make a new unbreakable treaty going forward. Kerry talks about apologizing for Wounded Knee and improving healthcare and education for the reservations. Harkin again loses me by basically saying “what’s past is past; not my problem.” Clinton’s plan sounds to me more like integration between the two, US and Indian. Tsongas, again, doesn’t offer a unique plan and defend it against his competitors. He focuses solely on “Bush is bad! Any of us will be better than Bush!” When it goes back to Agran, I admire how he says some problems just cant be bought away—the Indians don’t just want money, they want their dignity back. (And the Black Hills which we illegally stole from them even against a Supreme Court ruling–coincidentally in the state of South Dakota.)

Closing Statements

Harkin asks the usual question “when you go into that ballot room…who’s gonna fight for you?” and emphasizes his record.

Agran points out the problem of democracy in the US and the party with how his campaign has been tragically ignored. He says he wants to cut the military budget in half and end spending on weapons systems we don’t need—instant respect from me. “If my voice can’t be heard, what do you think the chances are that your voice is gonna be heard?” Powerful stuff.

Kerry lists off his goals of healthcare, equality for women, etc.

Clinton emphasizes he’s from a state a lot like SD, so he knows what they want. He stresses his “new ideas” for Washington including a “boot camp” for drug offenders rather than jail. (Why not decriminalize and treat it as a health issue?? What’s the difference between jail and “boot camp??”). He even foreshadows a line from Trump’s future campaign “if you want America to win again, vote for me”

Brown harps on the special interests and how they’ve taken over US politics. He claims he has put up a monetary limit to what donations he’ll accept in fact.

And then Tsongas gives a weak point about how his heritage gives him special affection for the state.


So..yeah. Interesting debate. A big, big step up from the ’80s in terms of structure. Again, no gimmicky “ask each other questions!” period, no guest questioners, no asking them all wildly different questions, just keeping things on point and holding them to give their positions on specific topics.

I think immediately we can dismiss Tsongas based on his Republican-Lite positions, as well as his distinct mopey, lispy manner of speech. Every primary has an unquestionably dull, negative charisma candidate, and he’s it for this cycle.

Then we can rule out Harkin for also having noticeably conservative stances and failing to make himself stand out.

Kerry suffers from the latter criticism there as well, but he’s at least decently liberal on the issues, particularly healthcare.

Brown’s mannerisms and voice give off a subtle “don’t trust this guy” vibe, but I did like a lot of his positions except being anti-nuclear and dismissive of teachers.

Agran is definitely the underdog this cycle, and he has a very respectable platform in keeping with the tradition of McGovern, Jackson and Babbitt. Shame he was ignored by the media, but I’m going to make an effort to read more about him soon. I’m not sure if he was ready to be president though if he’d only been a mayor before this.

Finally, there’s Bill. He didn’t seem to have a very Leftist platform either, and he didn’t blow me away like his reputation had me believe he would. He turned in a decent but not extraordinary performance here. I think his answers are more in depth and pin-pointed to the specifics which his opponents were overlooking and that is interesting. He didn’t offer any sweeping platform promises like some of his opponents–he just jumped in and undercut what their ideas were missing.

I’ll watch another debate from this cycle. That won’t have Agran, sadly, but it will have a different sixth candidate who was missing at this debate

1 Comment

  1. This is another debate I didn’t watch at the time since I would not have even considered voting for any of these candidates. Another one you watched so I don’t need to. I trust your analysis. And after reading this I feel that I know what went on. Seems like another fine job of political analysis by Cassandra.


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