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Thursday, October 15, 2015


The responses to my post about the Democratic Party candidates' debate make it clear that I should have explained myself more fully.  I don't in fact disagree at all with the comments.  So, herewith a more thoughtful response to the debate.

There are at least four different things we might mean when we say that a candidate won a debate [aside from formal debating, where winning means being awarded the win by the judges.]  First, we might mean that what the candidate said was closer to the truth or more profound or more important.  By that measure, Bernie won the debate hands down.  Indeed, so far as I am concerned, he won the debate in that sense before it ever started, simply by identifying himself as a Democratic Socialist.

Second, we might mean that the candidate handled himself or herself better, more self-assuredly, more deftly.  By that measure. Bernie and Hillary vastly outclassed the other three candidates, and Hillary, I would say, somewhat outclassed Bernie.  She is, in my judgment, simply a more accomplished debater than Bernie.  Let me give one example, about which much has been made.  At one point, Bernie said that America should try to be more like Denmark.  I know what he meant.  All of us on the left know what he meant.  But it was a tone-deaf thing to say, a real blunder [never  mind that it is true, that is a separate matter.]  How might he have said the same thing better?  Very simple:  cite a number of state health plans or minimum wage plans or family leave plans and say [this is just by way of illustration] "If Massachusetts can do it and California can do it and Washington State can do it, then America can do it."  Same point exactly, but in a politically acceptable form.  "Why should Bernie pander to idiots?" you might ask.  Because he is trying to get their votes, not teach them in a seminar, that's why.  If you don't want to try to find ways of telling people things they need to hear in words that they can hear and understand, then get out of politics.

Third, we might mean that the candidate gained the most in public support from the debate.  For that, we must await the polls.  I recall the very first televised presidential debate, between JFK and RMN [i.e., Kennedy and Nixon.]  It was early days in television, and most people heard the debate on radio.  Those who heard it on radio thought Nixon had won.  Those who saw it thought Kennedy had won.  Why?  The answer is delicious, and has been used by me for decades to illustrate Socrates' classification of true and false arts in the Gorgias.  Kennedy had a serious disorder for which he took medication, a side effect of which was to give him a healthy looking tan.  Nixon was thin-skinned -- not quick to anger or easily insulted, just literally with a very thin epidermis.  Even though he had shaved close just before the debate, under the harsh bright lights of early television he looked as though he had a five o'clock shadow [as it used to be called.]  What is more, he had banged his elbow getting out of his cab at the TV station and was in pain.  So Kennedy was sick, and looked well, and Nixon was well, and looked sick.

Fourth, we might mean that the candidate improved his or her chances of securing the nomination.  By this measure, my guess is that Clinton was the clear  winner.  She needed to do three things to shore up her front-runner status:  Convey a sense that she had turned a corner on the pseudo-scandal of the e-mails;  dissuade Biden from entering the race; and reassure her base that she was fully ready to take on whichever clown gets the Republican nomination.  She did the first, thanks to Bernie, who uttered perhaps the only honest words ever heard in an American presidential debate.  Her general success accomplished the second, I would bet.  And she demonstrated that she would at least be the equal of any Republican candidate.  Bernie clearly improved his standing by introducing himself to some many millions of Democratic voters who, until the debate, had been paying little attention.   But since he is at this point the also-ran, he needs Clinton to falter for him to take over the lead, and she did not.

Now let us step back a bit and take a longer look.  We are in an extraordinary moment in American politics, and as the resident Tigger of this blog, I am allowing myself to feel considerable hope.  The central domestic fact of American society, dominating everything else, is the obscene inequality of wealth and income that characterizes all capitalist economies but America's most strikingly.  As Piketty has shown those among us who were not paying attention, this inequality is centuries old, and after a post WWII shrinking, has been expanding again to a level of inequality not seen since before the Great Depression.  All of us Marxists have known this forever, fat lot of good it has done us.  Ten years ago, it was impossible to get anyone to talk about it save for those of us clustered in a corner whispering dangerous truths to each other.  Then came the Great Recession, and Occupy Wall Street, and now someone who calls himself a Socialist [even if his policies would fit very comfortably into an FDR New Deal position paper] is being taken seriously as a contender for the presidential nomination of a major political party.

Did Bernie win the debate?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends on what you mean by "win."  Did the American people win the debate?   You betcha, as Sarah Palin would say.


David Auerbach said...

Sense 3 (and hence partly 4) are influenced recursively by the coverage of the debate. And that's what's so annoying about the orchestrated punditry post-debate.

Derek said...

A general point to note that fits along with much of this is that debates don't happen in a vacuum. If all five candidates did exactly, mathematically equally well (assuming that were possible), Hillary would be the winner. Why? Because she was in the lead beforehand, and the debate would thus not change that. She is and remains the presumptive nominee, which means that it takes more than not being the best for her to lose--it takes a serious blunder, or a long, sustained decline, combined with a contender who has a clear path forward. That can happen (See: Barack Obama and 2008), but it would take more than a single debate loss. And the pundits, for the most part, are trying to look at this long game. In that light, Hillary just has to do well enough to keep her path as presumptive nominee open; she unquestionably did so.

Relatedly, the closer we get to the primaries, the greater the likelihood of her winning becomes: if she has 60% in the polls now, that's different from 60% in the polls on February 1st; the former has, because of time and the dreaded change that comes with it, less predictive power for whether she'll win. In 2008 Newt Gingrich, as I fondly recall from this blog, was leading the polls at one point. But that was definitely not the case the day before the Iowa caucuses.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

You mentioned that, with regard to Clinton's emails, Sanders "uttered perhaps the only honest words ever heard in an American presidential debate."

That may be a bit of a generalization. I seem to recall Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, and even Bruce Babbitt offering a few honest statements in past debates.

-- Jim

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I spoke hyperbolically, for effect.