Don’t know if you watched the Democratic presidential debate from South Carolina, but I did, and I’ll get kicked out of the blogger union if I don’t pass on some impressions.The format was unusual, with lots of questions demanding (unsuccessfully) short answers, with lots of jumping around on topics, and virtually no candidate interaction, other than that randomly forced by the questions. The two candidates that got occasionally annoying in defying the rules and talking too long were Bill Richardson and (this year’s ultimate protest candidate) Mike Gravel.And speaking of questions, they were occasionally framed and followed-up in ways that betrayed even the “gotcha” instincts of debate moderators. Joe Biden got a question on the Supreme Court’s decision on the congressional “Partial-Birth Abortion” ban that didn’t mention he voted for the ban in the Senate. Bill Richardson offered Whizzer White as a model for the nominees he’d put on the Supreme Court, and nobody noted that (aside from White’s status as something less than a constitutional giant) the Whizzer was a dissenter in the original abortion rights decision, Roe v. Wade. And John Edwards was asked about his attitude towards hedge funds (a subject that most viewers probably knew little or nothing about) without any reference to his own employment by a hedge fund between his presidential runs.The post-debate punditry on the sponsoring network, MSNBC, seemed to endorse the obvious impression that nobody really won or lost, but also suggested that Hillary Clinton did the best job of meeting her goals. She was calm, reasonable, relatively responsive, and occasionally self-deprecating. And on a question that will probably be replayed a lot tomorrow, involving how they’d react to a second 9/11 where al Qaeda’s responsibility was clear, she used the muscle verbs “retaliate” and “destroy,” satisfying those who somehow think female candidates aren’t credible on the use of force (Richardson actually preceded her in immediately mentioning the use of force as a response, while Obama conspicuously omitted it).Obama had some of the most interesting moments. He initially flubbed a “gotcha” question about America’s “three top allies,” and didn’t mention Israel, but nicely handled the follow-up. He was more specific about health care than in past debates. And he did a solid job of answering questions about his position on Iraq.Edwards was subdued and wonky (I personally consider the latter a compliment). He gamely dealt with the inevitable and impossible questions about his expensive haircut. Casual watchers might have been struck by his answer to the question on Iraq, and his implicit challenge to Hillary, but he used almost exactly the same language as in past debates, so pundits and activists probably weren’t impressed.Biden had his classic sound-bite moment, answering a question about his ability to exercise verbal discipline with one word, “Yes.” Dodd went with his counter-intuitive but what-the-hell pitch about his experience. And Dennis Kucinich, partly thanks to losing his protest role to Mike Gravel, was more relaxed and reasonable sounding than I’ve ever heard him, both in the debate and in the post-debate interview.A quick review of the reaction in the progressive blogosphere shows a subdued take on the event. At DailyKos, a reader poll about “who won” shows (as of this moment) Edwards at 20%, Obama at 17%, Clinton at 11%, Gravel at 9%, Richardson at 6%, and the rest scattered, with 11% saying “nobody.” The main outliers here are HRC’s double-digit showing (she inevitably finishes at around 3%, well below Denny the K., in assessments of actual support), and Richardson’s pallid performance. I suspect the latter may have reflected the pub the debate gave to Richardson’s NRA support, and his reluctance to call for Alberto Gonzales’ resignation.So the debate probably moved few votes, but may slightly shift the future landscape. And I hope the formatters of future debates noticed what didn’t work tonight, and try to elicit longer, more substantive, and more interactive answers next time the donkeys gather.UPDATE 1: Richardson’s shout-out to the ghost of Byron White got noticed elsewhere. Scott Lemieux at TAPPED jumped on it before I did. And my buddy Armando at Talk Left went right out and said it disqualified Big Bill from the nomination. If this sort of buzz escalates, we’ll probably see some statement from Richardson’s campaign explaining where their candidate was going with that, before Brian Williamson told him to name someone actually still living. Maybe it was a Western Thing, since the Whizzer was from Colorado. But then William O. Douglas, a much safer liberal role model, was from Washington State. UPDATE 2: Matt Yglesias picked up on my reference to the question Obama got about our “three most important allies.” So naturally, I got kicked around some in Matt’s comment thread, based on the apparent belief that I was lecturing Obama about Israel’s value to the U.S. Actually, all I was doing was pointing to the silly “gotcha” by Williamson, who was clearly hoping Obama would forget to mention Israel (a bad idea in Democratic politics), as evidenced by his immediate follow-up with an Obama quote about the suffering of the Palestinians. Obama turned that around by replying that he was talking about the folly of the Palestinian leadership, and then said the appropriate things about Israel as a U.S. ally. For the record, like Matt, I think this was a ridiculous question. Ranking allies–or, as reflected in yet another dumb question posed to Biden–enemies, is not something any potential president ought to be doing in public.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.