My Reaction to a 2008 Democratic Primary Debate

This was the first election where I was old enough to fully understand the issues, where I really first in love with a candidate (Obama, obviously) and wasn’t just cheering against the other party, like in 2004 (and again in 2012 after I lost a lot of faith in Obama.) This is also the first election where I was actively following the primaries. I was young and naive enough to be excited by the idea of making history and voting for a black man or woman. Like so many others, I loved Obama from the beginning. I didn’t know enough about Hillary to dislike her as I do now, but she was a distant second fave to me. I’m not going to waste time reiterating my issues with Obama and Hillary again. I just want to see if my younger self was correct in my choice of the candidates or if there was someone more progressive than Obama in this field who was outmaneuvered and/or overshadowed by the hype of electing a black man.

So, looking at who we’ve got here besides the two front runners: Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich is back from last cycle, and Mike Gravel. Let me just say immediately that I couldn’t be happier the insufferable turncloak Joe Lieberman isn’t here. I was terrified maybe he made another bid and I’d have to listen to him derail another debate with out of place right-wing talking points and personal attacks on the progressive candidates. I have mixed feelings on Dennis being back from 2004; his policy ideas sounded great last time, but the way he joined in on the bullying of Dean to try to steal his base left a bad taste in my mouth. Attacking Dean for not supporting Single Payer while Joe Lieberman is right there (not to mention the other 4 candidates who had their own convoluted private insurance based systems) was the worst case of political opportunism and misplaced rage that I’ve ever seen.

I wish the other hard-left candidate from ’04, Carol Braunn, had been here instead; being both black AND a woman might have allowed her to siphon off a lot of the excitement drummed up for Clinton and Barack. In fact, now that I think about it, why was there no drummed up “so historical!” hubbub for her last cycle? The way Clinton’s candidacy was hyped up I had assumed back then that she was the first woman to even seek the nomination—but she wasn’t. Not only was there Carol the previous cycle, but Shirley Chisholm 32 years before that, and possibly others I’m forgetting for the elections in between.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know Edwards is dead in the water due to his looming scandal, but maybe he’s gotten better since 2004. Biden was great in ’88 and would have easily won the primary as well as the general that year were it not for his plagiarism scandal, so I’m expecting him to be good now. I don’t know these other three guys, so we’ll see if they impress me.

The Iraq War

I’m glad to hear the moderator say that the candidates WILL NOT ask questions of each other this debate. Thank god. It was getting old before anyway, but especially after last cycle and how they were used to tear down Dean, I’m SO over that gimmick. Even better, he says the candidates have agreed not to waste time the first answer thanking the moderator and organizers! Wow, it’s like Brian Williams knew all the stupid annoying quirks which had plagued the previous debates and was making every effort to fix them. Well, it’s much appreciated. I’m just shocked the format hadn’t been ironed out and perfected sooner.

Beginning with the Iraq War, Clinton wants to end the war and bring the troops home. Clinton is asked to defend her vote, gives the usual excuse “I was misled, if I knew then what I do now I wouldn’t support it.”

Biden wants to decentralize Iraq and let the local communities get control.

Obama boasts of being against the war from the start and proposes we phase out our presence there.

Edwards harps on how Americans have lost faith in the government.

Dennis calls out the Senators on stage for voting to continue funding the war, as it’s a tacit endorsement. He also calls out the lack of judgment it shows to have voted for the war, and basically says the excuse Hillary just offered is a weak one.

Richardson calls the war a disaster and pledges to remove all troops by the end of the calendar year. He wants to have an international peace-keeping effort there and have other countries oversee the reconstruction. I don’t think a plan like that is really viable. Imagine saying “Hey, France, China, Canada, whoever else…we’re gonna need you to devote your men and resources to rebuild this mess we made. K, thanks.” I don’t see that going over particularly well.

Dodd calls Iraq a failed policy that’s isolated us in the world.

Gravel says the war was lost on day one and challenges Congress to pass a law making it a felony to stay in Iraq (?!) which I think betrays a lack of understanding of political reality. His plan would basically explode tensions between the parties and branches of government needlessly and it ignores the negative consequences of pulling out cold turkey. Plus, imagine if Congress tried to create laws declaring the president’s actions or agenda a felony whenever they wanted and thereby forcing his hand—it’s total overreach, and since the President enforces the laws, it wouldn’t even work. It would have to go to the Supreme Court which would almost certainly side with the President in that case. I do agree with him that Democrats, not just on Iraq but nowadays with everything else, need to get tougher, call Republican bluffs, and let America see who’s obstructing things and who’s not. They keep caving in, ceding ground, meeting the Republicans in the middle even as the Republicans grow increasingly obstructionist, unreasonable and extremely far-right.

Just observing this first round, you’ll notice how far and beyond Obama and Hillary are from the rest of the field in terms of the strength of oration. Hillary’s not a good speech-maker, but in her prime (pre 2016) she was a good debater. Obama is the most charismatic, exciting politician since JFK and possibly even stronger in some ways. When they speak, especially Barack, they hold their heads high, sound intelligent, and give off a youthful vigor. Edwards and Biden come close and are definitely the next tier down—very good but not quite on that level. As for everyone else? Forget about it. I can hardly even remember Richardson or Dodd after only 5 minutes, and Gravel comes off like a slightly unhinged, angry old man who doesn’t understand the subtleties or finesse of governance.

The difference between this field and last is noticeable in how much better overall the oratory skills are just by having Obama, Clinton and Biden there to raise the average. Last cycle, it was really just Dean who felt interesting and knowledgeable in his answers. The other two progressives had exciting principles but their lack of gravitas left much to be desired. The eventual nominee that time around looked and sounded like a tired old man who’d seen better days. This time though, the best speaker as well as the people’s choice won the primary and it made all the difference in the general.

Acknowledging Flaws

It’s commendable that Edwards owns up to living a privileged life now “but I haven’t forgotten where I came from” and then shares a genuine anecdote about his upbringing to prove it. I think it’s cool to see a politician just own a perceived flaw against them rather than deny, bullshit, deflect or all the other crap you usually see.

Richardson was doomed the moment Brian Williams brought up that he was one of the last to condemn AG Gonzales because he’s Hispanic. The identity politics of electing a woman or black man were exciting for the most part back in 2008…but a comment like that represents the worst of identity politics: special treatment and putting race above qualifications. Richardson tries to rebound from it, but the damage was done. Also, notice how Richardson leans in and makes these sort of disgruntled faces every time he’s asked a question. He also pauses a lot to catch his train of thought while he speaks. It’s a fairly small but very noticeable flaw in his oration, and as always, appearances matter.

I loved Biden’s one word response to the accusation that he’s a “gaffe machine” and whether he can change people’s minds about that. Good old Uncle Joe. He makes gaffes, but they’re harmless “oh Joe!” type gaffes. At least, that was the case back in the Obama years. Since around ’16, the gaffes have been horrifying. Still, it’s nice to look back and see how innocent we used to be; what was considered such a big deal before is nothing compared to the new normal. I will admit that, at least here in ’08, Joe has a sense of humor about himself which helps a lot.

I commend Gravel for calling out the other candidates for threatening to use nukes against Iran. I still think a lot of the vitriol he hurls at them is somewhat unfiltered and over the top though. This doesn’t seem to be a particularly evil field, unlike the previous cycle. His “how the hell did the rest of them get here?!” question would be better directed at Joe Lieberman, Gephardt and Kerry. His angry old man shtick is almost endearing in that you know he’s being brutally honest, but it’s also unpolished and makes him unelectable from the get go. It’s funny too how, when asked who specifically he fears on stage, he says “the top tier [candidates]…Joe, I’ll include you too.” Damn, this guy is like a less extreme, not-bigoted Donald Trump—he says the unconventional, impolite things we’re all thinking but no one up there has the balls to say. Gravel and Bernie could have learned a lot from each other, I’d say: the former went a little too mean, the latter not mean enough. Put them together and you’d have a winner.

Abortion & Guns

They all support a woman’s right to choose (big surprise).

Hillary’s asked about the then current Virginia Tech shooting and says she wants to reform background checks. In this case, I think its warranted, though of course I support the right to own firearms and in my opinion, the Left’s continuing assault on those rights after every shooting is missing the point. [I will expand on this position sometime in a dedicated standalone post.]

Richardson shines for the first time in his own answer when he adds that what’s far more important is mental health care in America. Biden agrees, and says teachers should have the ability to report students with suspect behavior–I’m not sure if I would like that policy in practice. It might save lives or it could easily be abused and instill more conformity and authoritarianism in schools. (“He listens to Marilyn Manson and wears black–school shooter in the making!!!”)

I think the next question is bullshit and just as overly invasive as that panelist challenging Edwards to send his kids to public schools from the previous cycle. Williams asks for a show of hands, who’s all had a gun in the house as an adult. Give me a break. This seems like an excuse to demonize the candidates who have, due to many people on the left’s fanatical fear and loathing of firearms. It would be like asking “who here has had a family member get an abortion?” at a GOP debate, just setting the honest ones who admit so up for failure. There isn’t even any follow up question to those who said yes or no. They just move on. So again, what’s the fucking point of asking? It’s just to make them look bad, and it’s despicable.

Healthcare

Edwards describes something similar to what Obamacare ended up being. Basically, employers must cover all employees and then there’s a government choice you can buy into (what the public option would’ve been—fuck you, Joe Lieberman). Obama’s plan sounds a lot like what Kerry discussed last time—giving the people the same healthcare pool as government officials. He wants to eliminate bureaucracy (hahaha).

Hillary, like Bill from 1992, attempts to come in as the “voice of reason” just pointing out the flaws of other peoples’ plans without offering a comprehensive solution of her own. About the most descriptive thing she offers is that she doesn’t want to throw any more money into the system that already exists. To me, this reads like throwing a bone to the conservatives whose MO is about cutting costs. Smart plan, actually, to try to get them onboard—back in 2008. At this point, now that we know they’re never gonna compromise, we should stop trying to meet them in the middle and just push for what’s humane–single payer.

Richardson also focuses on eliminating the waste and overhead while emphasizing prevention, specifically of diabetes which apparently is 30% of our healthcare cost (or was in 2008). I definitely agree that encouraging better diets and lifestyle choices would go a long way while it doesn’t get discussed as much as it ought to. This is why we need to end the subsidies on corn as well, which led to the overuse of corn syrup in our food products. But again, you’ll never hear a national politician say that, especially before the Iowa caucus has concluded.

Acknowledging Flaws and Mistakes (Part Dos)

Next, Biden’s asked why he and the other candidates are in South Carolina since they support the NAACP, which has called for a ban of SC due to the Confederate Flag being flown on some state office buildings. It’s an unfortunate conundrum. Personally I would ask the questioner why he thinks it’s ok to fly the REBEL FLAG on US soil and still expect the protections and benefits of US citizenship. I’d go further to say that if he wants that freedom of speech, he should respect the NAACP’s own freedom of speech to call for a boycott. And as a presidential candidate, he himself is obligated to see it from both POVs. Biden just says hes proud to go to a black university and embrace the great things happening there rather than miss out on an opportunity like that. Kind of a wishy washy answer—it’s not direct or forceful enough on the side he’s chosen nor does it go far enough to explain why it makes more sense to support a persecuted minority group over a bunch of Southern crybabies flying a rebel flag in defiance to intimidate others. Obama expresses this sentiment a lot more kindly than I did, saying “the confederate flag belongs in a museum.”

Next they’re asked about mistakes they’ve made, and what they learned from it, and they have to sum all that up in a measly twenty seconds. Good god, it’s more ridiculous quiz show territory. Gravel cribs Reagan’s famous comeback to Mondale about “my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Dennis retells the story about firing a guy on the news. Clinton says healthcare. Obama says he didn’t fight harder in support of a bill. Biden says he underestimated the competence of the administration. Edwards says he voted for the war. Dodd says the same. Richardson says he’s too aggressive about pushing for change too quickly.

Immigration

Would Clinton support amnesty for illegal immigrants? Essentially yes—if they pay a fine, pay back taxes and learn English. I personally agree with that answer in theory, however I think the fairer and easier solution for all concerned is amnesty for those here already but not accepting any others who come illegally. I think the best thing we could do to curb illegal immigration is end the war on drugs which empowers the cartels making parts of Latin America so unappealing that people want to come here. I guarantee if Hillary said the same answer she gave in ’08 in ’16, she’d be attacked for it, especially the last part about them learning English. It’s another infamous flip flop on her part, insisting English in ’08 but then speaking broken Spanish at campaign rallies in ’16. (And her mealy mouthed sidekick Kaine following suite at the convention.)

It’s also interesting how the question used the phrase “illegal aliens” and not the more PC term used now, “undocumented immigrants.” Shows how far we’ve come. I prefer “Illegal Immigrants” because I find “aliens” to be sort of dehumanizing but I think “undocumented” is a runaround of the fact that they came here without following due procedures, or in some cases without paying taxes. Sadly, between Trump’s over the top racist rhetoric in regards to them and the Democrats bending over backwards to cater to them, this sensible middle way is being ignored.

I think its ridiculous that the moderator and panelists get so pissy with the candidates for going over time. The fact is, you cannot answer a policy question in any kind of useful manner in 1 minute, let alone 20 seconds as they’re often forced to here. Brian Williams did a great job ironing out a lot of the quirks of the primary debate format as I mentioned earlier. But there’s still the annoying, misplaced idea that it’s better to cram in a lot of questions nobody has time to satisfactorily answer rather than ask broader questions and give them more time to flesh out their agenda.

ASIDE: With the number of primary (and general election) debates, I seriously cannot understand why it doesn’t happen this way: the first debate or two, give equal chunks of time for the candidates to lay out their domestic (and in another debate, foreign) policy uninterrupted. Then as the primaries go on, ask more pointed, specific questions to get details which were left out the first few times. For the general election too, have the first debate be 2 hours of 30 minute intervals of both candidates discussing foreign and then domestic policies. Then in the second and third ask questions based on what they didn’t cover in their answers in the first debate. This seems pretty simple to me. I came up with this idea myself after watching a bunch of debates and reading the Lincoln Douglas transcripts. So why has NOBODY ELSE in media figured it out? I know their primary motivator is money, not disseminating information, but how does the current model get them more money? Either way, it’s commercial free.

Foreign Policy

The final half hour is touted as “non-Iraq foreign policy.” Obama is asked who our top 3 allies are. He lists NATO, the European Union and says China is neither an ally nor an enemy but we need to establish a friendly relationship with them because they’re not going away. Solid answer in my opinion, but apparently not for Brian Williams. He demands to know why Obama didn’t mention Israel, and then brings up a quote from Barack about Palestinian suffering and demands Obama explain himself. (I’d LOVE to hear Obama’s inner thoughts on the matter now after the disrespect Netanyahu has shown him at every conceivable opportunity.)

Now, I could go into another rant here about how fed up I personally am with the US constantly sucking up to Israel even as they show us nothing but disdain and entitlement. I’m sick of Netanyahu tweaking our nose as he accepts billions in aid while we can’t even provide water for our own people in Michigan. AIPAC is the most powerful lobby in America and both parties constantly go on paying tribute to them at every opportunity while we ignore the despicable way they treat Palestinians in Gaza. Suggest that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t support Israel as much or as unconditionally as we do and you’re an anti-Semite who hates freedom. Rather than say any of this, Obama goes on backtracking and talking about what a great ally Israel is. It’s weak and two-faced, but realistically it’s a requirement to have a hope of being elected. Israel is above reproach in modern US political discourse, because criticism of the government is deliberately misframed as hatred of Jewish people. Well, I love my country and countrymen but hate my government; I don’t see why that same position cannot be transposed to any other state in the world too.

Biden calls North Korea and Putin our greatest enemies.

Gravel gives the answer that wins my undying respect—we have no important enemies. We need to start treating the rest of the world as equals not as our enemies and playground. He brings up our obscene military budget and asks “who are we so afraid of?” He says Iraq has never been a threat to us—we invaded them, and goes on to accuse the military industrial complex of taking over not only our government but our culture. I agree 100%, and like so much else I’ve mentioned or rambled about in this post, this is the kind of thing that NEEDS to be said, but often isn’t. That’s why Bernie was so remarkable, because he said a lot of these things and was still a viable candidate, not an unhinged grandpa as Gravel comes off as. But still, we need more Gravels up there to talk sense and call out the dog and pony show for what it is, and bring attention to the major issues it ignores. I’ll say this too, while he’s unpolished and unviable, at least Gravel has made himself stand out to me. Of the three unknowns on stage: Richardson, Dodd and him, he’s the only one that has made any kind of impact where Dodd and Richardson have mostly blended into the background and allowed themselves to be overshadowed by (as Gravel also called them) the top tiers (“including Joe”).

This second show of hands comes up, with the question being “do you believe in a worldwide war on terror” and we can tell how they’re “supposed” to answer because Williams then needles those who didn’t raise their hand on why. It’s great the “ask each other questions” segments are gone, but they’ve been replaced by something just as bad with these show of hands “gotcha!” ambushes. I don’t like how the moderator has an obvious bias in both of these questions, nor do I like the idea of any presidential debate question where the candidate cannot EXPLAIN their position.

The next question is pretty ridiculous too I have to say. It’s asking what they’d do if two cities were attacked that very night. I don’t like how Clinton uses the fact that she was a Senator of New York during 9/11 to claim some kind of special “ownership” (for lack of a better word) over the tragedy. The way she talks, you’d think just happening to be governing the state means she alone knows how awful the attack was, which I don’t believe is true or fair. It’s also telling how the other candidates are mostly focusing on determining how the attack happened first, where good old neocon overcompensating Hillary is talking about the need to “swiftly respond.” So basically, it’d be Iraq 2.0 before we’re even out of Iraq yet if she were in charge.

This answer was very telling, as is the Libyan and Syrian intervention she championed as SOS, to the kind of warmonger she would have been as president. It’s also confirmation that she’s just as much a neocon as the Bush family were. This is partially why I didn’t support her even with Trump as the alternative, and why I think those who do are looking at the letter D next to her name and not the kind of person she actually is. Her pivot to attacking Bush for diverting attention from Afghanistan to Iraq rings hallow since she supported the war in Iraq herself. You can even see her catching herself and choosing her words carefully at this segment because even she knows shes walking through a minefield here with her past voting record. Again, she gave the most angry, warmongering answer out of anyone by far. It’s clear she learned nothing from Iraq and the vote she claims to regret so much, and I say now as I have all year—if this woman were elected she would have gotten us involved in another damned fool crusade in the Middle East, guaranteed.

Another show of hands: will anyone join with Dennis Kucinich to impeach Cheney? No hands. I would’ve raised mine if only as a symbolic gesture. I’m surprised not a single person did. I guess the idea is they knew it would be a waste of political capital and he was gonna be out in a year anyway. But even if it was too late to impeach, I absolutely think he should’ve been tried as a war criminal once out of office.

Miscellaneous

Dodd doesn’t support same sex marriage but does support civil unions. Not very inspiring, but it’s important to note that neither did Obama or Hillary until 4 years later. These half-measures aren’t exactly contemptible but they’re certainly not commendable either. In contrast to some other people I know in the community who treat Hillary and Obama as heroes for supporting us only after it was cool, I will save my admiration for McGovern, Bernie and Jackson who did so in the ’70s and ’80s.

Gravel earns yet more of my respect by coming down hard on the war on terrorism, saying its as big a waste of time and money as the war on drugs.

Obama is asked what he’s done in his personal life to make the world greener and begins to describe organizing volunteers to plant trees. Williams cuts him off “I meant like, light bulbs” he says. Wow. What’s even the point of the question then, if you’re gonna tell me how I have to answer? And considering Gravel and Richardson recently just used their time to dodge the questions entirely, I don’t see why Obama should get singled out for a good answer like that. I’d have responded: “We recycle, Brian. Is that what you want me to say? Okay, great. Glad we’re wasting time on a stupid feel good answer like this and not talking about energy policy. But no, light bulbs. That’s more important. Got it.”

Dennis earns back some respect by linking global warming and global warring to oil and our need for an alternate energy policy. He’s absolutely correct and this, yet again, is another topic which SHOULD be addressed at policy debates but is swept under the rug. (I can just imagine Brian Williams replying “yeah…but do you use fluorescent light bulbs though???!??!?”)

Edwards is asked who he considers his moral hero. He thinks about it an uncomfortably long time and then rattles off all the cliched, bullshit, expected answers. “My Lord….my wife (OUCH!! considering his incoming scandal)…my father…” Ugh. See, like at the 1988 general debate, this kind of question could and should conceivably be a great insight into the character of candidates and what kinds of people and values they admire. Sadly, here as in 1988, politicians will always give the “political” answer, what’s least offensive or controversial and focus grouped to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Just name someone you honestly admire. Is that really so hard? I’d say George McGovern, Princess Diana or Brian Wilson. If you asked me this kind of question, one of them would immediately come to mind, with many reasons I could list to justify why. I actually think it’s kinda scary and says a lot about these people that they don’t have some external hero and therefore rely on the typical cliches as Edwards and both 1988 candidates did. It just screams “phony” if not “sociopath” to me.

Conclusion

And that’s the end of that.

Obama proved once again he’s a cut above the rest in terms of oratory skills and charisma.

Clinton showed her warmongering side and also embodied Bill’s rhetorical strategies from 1992.

Biden was lovable Uncle Joe. [And then the clips of him molesting children and allegations of rape soiled that image forever.]

Edwards was the centrist smooth talker doomed to failure like Gary Hart before him.

Richardson and especially Dodd were completely forgettable.

Dennis was the same as last time though either he’s centered out a bit or the lack of Kerry and Lieberman made him not appear quite as progressive as last time because I really wasn’t wowed this time around by his ideas as before. I’m gonna go with the fact that this was an overall better field not dragged down by Lieberman, Kerry and Gephardt wasting time with their neocon, center-right and vacuous pandering.

The real surprise discovery here for me was Mike Gravel. He’s not a great candidate in the sense that he’d ever win—he wouldn’t in a million years. There’s no way he beats anyone in a general election coming off as abrasively as he does. But he was talking sense this debate, if in an unpolished manner. He was like the embodiment of America’s conscience up there, the fed up old man who’s sick of the same bullshit talking points being hashed out for the millionth time while the real issues go un-discussed. I like him, and want to read more about him.

Unlike all the other Democratic primaries since 1972, this time around I can actually say without a doubt that the best person won. Obama has the best oration, campaigned as a progressive (though whether he actually governed as one is debatable at best) and is just plain charming whether you agree with his positions or not. Hillary, as the classic criticism against her would have it, is a robot. And she was way too eager to push for war and not nearly eager enough to provide real forward-thinking policy ideas for my taste. Again, she’s just like Bill from 1992, shooting down the grandiose plans others have while not really offering an alternative. Dennis isn’t forceful or passionate enough to really come alive the way Bernie, Jerry Brown or Jesse Jackson did. Neither is Joe Biden. He just doesn’t “pop” in this crowd the way he did in 1988. The short and sweet of it is, on performance as well as campaign strategy, Barack was way ahead of everyone. I don’t feel the need to watch a second debate this cycle either.

1 Comment

  1. Another Debate I didn’t bother to watch. I couldn’t imagine me ever even considering voting for any of these candidates. I also disliked John McCain because I thought he was too much like these guys. I’m sure I wrote in Ron Paul or some other 3rd party candidate. You did such a good job covering this debate I feel like I did watch it. Glad you watched it so I don’t need to.

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