About Last Night… & What to Look for on Night Two

June 27, 2019

Castro, Warren & Booker Won the Spin Room: Polling & June 30 Fundraising Numbers Will Reveal If That’s Right

“Know Your Policy & Punch Up”: How Night One Changed the Terms for the Night Two Debaters

Bucking the Pundits, 2020 Is Not Looking Like the Year of the White Male After All

By Al Giordano

(Note: This is Issue #82 of Al Giordano’s América and for the first time after 81 issues is being posted online and is being made, on this one-time basis only, available in its entirety to the greater public.)

When the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates had mostly announced polling suggested the contest was heading toward a Joe Biden vs. Bernie Sanders contest – essentially a rematch of Clinton vs. Sanders of 2016 with the battlefield, the pundits almost universally claimed, being for the soul of the so-called “white working class.”

Some of us said, hey, wait a minute, that ain’t gonna hold. Well, here we are, it’s not even July and that tattered piñata is bursting already.

A debate this early with ten candidates on stage will usually have more than one winner and so it went last night. The first debate did answer many of the questions outlined in this space yesterday:

Elizabeth Warren did wear the frontrunner label well. Bill de Blasio and Tulsi Gabbard did reveal more of their motives for running. Cory Booker and Julián Castro showed us they’re not always the gentlemen they had been so far, Booker with a side eye and Castro by deploying his street fighting skills – and, wow! He also likely won the first Battle of Texas of the cycle – but there may be more Lone Star State scrimmages coming soon enough.

The mayors were not able to bring the policy discussions onto their City Hall policy turf, leaving the first hour almost completely in Warren’s sweet spot, her “big, structural change” policy terrain. For the second hour she just sat back, smiled and watched some of her rivals create some drama skirmishing with each other and she could remain safely above. (She had already accomplished all she needed to do last night. Efficient, that lady! The only thing missing for Warren in hour two was having her golden retriever, Bailey, romp on stage for belly rubs while she whistled a happy tune.) We did get a good climate change discussion as anticipated. And Night One did move some expectations meters for the Night Two candidates.

The Great White Nope

The two most conflictive and therefore memorable moments showed the risks in this cycle of being a white guy and even of being an ally on equality issues if one is not really careful about how he phrases it.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee claimed to be the only one on stage who had passed a pro-choice law and Amy Klobuchar zinged him noting that his boast ignored the years of struggle that the three women on stage had put in to defend reproductive rights. Ka-boing! By contrast Beto O’Rourke got only attaboys when he raised reproductive freedom as a health care right without first being asked about that: Naral Pro-Choice America & its president Ilyse Hogue among many others beamed about O’Rourke’s statement in their Twitter feeds. That shows the difference between acting in solidarity or boasting about it. Every liberal white guy has had the experience of angering other kinds of people even when out of good intentions. Last night it was Inslee’s turn, and also, more significantly, it was the man from El Paso’s turn.

Beto would catch that fury on another front much more central to his campaign.

(As we get to know these candidates better we start to think of some of them by their first name, and I’m just going to give myself permission to do that here, and completely subjectively: Mayor de Blasio, for example, is not quite “Bill” to me yet. But Elizabeth, Cory, Beto, Amy, Julián, Tulsi and various of the Night Two debaters feel like old friends or frenemies to me already. It feels weird to always use their last names: except for the four white guy bookends of the first debate, with whom it still feels strange to try and use their first names. Or as Beto might not be as quick to point out today as yesterday, it’s like the difference between how one conjugates “tu,” the familiar “you,” and the formal “usted” in Spanish! But I’m not running for anything so I still can play with words.)

Pobre de Beto: the two gentlemen, Cory and Julián, each had come into the debate with what looked very much to me like premeditated hits on him. Everybody knew Beto would speak some Spanish on stage in a debate that was being aired live on Telemundo. Cory was fortunate to be in the wide camera angle – one wonders if his people telegraphed to NBC that they’d get a viral moment if they filmed it that way – giving Beto that skeptical side eye that set social media and meme makers ablaze last night.

Julián’s hit on Beto was something I recognized from more than two decades of life as a white American in Mexico: If someone like he or I is seen as having taken something that a Mexican or Mexican-American man considers rightfully his, that can build resentment. If we know history, that is understandable. And one sometimes has to negotiate amends to correct course and get along.

Beto had entered the campaign after Castro had said he would run, and immediately rocketed to the lead in polls in their state of Texas, including among Latino Texan voters. He took something Julián considered his. Castro’s nice guy persona now looks more like perhaps the result of an anger management program because when he erupts he breathes fire. But it was a controlled, rehearsed, cool, calm and collected flamethrower that he singed Beto with, and that was really impressive.

At the moment I thought it would backfire. The Castro campaign’s oppo research arm had clearly pored over O’Rourke’s long record on immigrant rights – which, let’s be real, compared that of to most other candidates has been exemplar (at least one frontrunner on stage tonight voted against immigration reform in 2007, yeah, that guy, the one with the wagging finger) – and Beto’s receipts have been much appreciated by his Hispanic constituents and by others throughout the Lone Star State and wider.

Beto had been outlining his immigration reform proposals when the crossfire happened. Citing the Salvadoran father and daughter who had died crossing the Rio Grande this week, Beto said, “We would not turn back Valeria and her father Oscar. We would accept them into this country and follow our asylum laws. We would not build walls. We would not put kids in cages.”

Julián began talking over him – almost always a no-no in any debate format that tends to backfire on the interrupter – about “Section 1325” of the Immigration and Nationality Act which criminalizes crossing the border. “Some of us on this stage have called for an end to that section, to terminate it. Congressman O’Rourke has not.”

Beto seemed, at first, unfazed and kept detailing his position. Julián grew visibly angrier, slowly raising the volume and pace of his interruptions. And then came the body slam: “I think you should do your homework on this issue.”

It is possible to feel, at the same time, admiration for Julián’s skills displayed at that moment and also empathy for Beto having been put somewhat unfairly in that position. Most of the debate watching public doesn’t know what I know having followed him for a decade: Beto has done his homework and has the receipts to show for it on these issues.

Politics Is Often Unfair – That’s Life

But winning at politics is also about being unfair when you can get away with it, and many Democratic primary voters will always give the benefit of the doubt to a person of color over a white person when the debate involves issues of racial discrimination. That’s natural, too. Just as with Amy Klobuchar’s smackdown of Jay Inslee over a poorly phrased statement on abortion, the primary voters will almost always presume the woman’s view is the more right one. And it usually is. And it really is no fun to be on the other end of that when one tries hard to be a good ally. But it happens! It’s a part of political life these days. Welcome to the NFL, boys. Wear a cup.

Julián Castro was close in the Obama administration with Anita Dunn, the political consultant and for a while Acting Communications Director in the Obama White House. Dunn is currently a senior advisor to Joe Biden as she was to Obama’s first presidential campaign. She is famous for the very kind of political knife skills Castro displayed last night. “A little green bird” (as they say in Brazil) familiar with both of them suggested to me that at this stage of the campaign only a confrontation with someone above him would be interesting or work, that if you’re going into this kind of knife fight (the term commonly used by political consultants and reporters for this kind of tactic) do it in an area you are comfortable with, in this case immigration policy. And do it in a way that the press would latch onto it as a plot line, in this case Texas vs. Texas.

It was a calculated media hit, premeditated, planned, rehearsed and flawlessly executed. And with it Julián alone accomplished what every lesser-known candidate wanted to do last night: He made himself relevant and an ongoing part of the narrative of the 2020 campaign. (The end-of-the-night embrace between Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro in the image above looked like a preview of one possible national ticket – the two wonks clearly have warm feelings for each other and she looked glad that her rival had done so well.)

The part of the spin that observes that Julián elevated himself seems real and likely to be reflected in a polling bump – he’s so far down even the slightest tick will look like up for him – and if in the June 30 Federal Elections Commission (FEC) filing deadline it gets him a noticeable leap in donations then it will be real. It think it is highly possible both of those were accomplished here.

The other side of the spin, that this moment somehow destroyed Beto’s campaign, I see as wishful thinking by those who don’t like him anyway. They misunderstand where his support comes from. Yes, he leads among Latinos and African-Americans in Texan presidential polling. But his large nationwide donor base is largely white and English-speaking. All day those folks have been saying earnestly that their guy won the debate. They believe. Beto will live to fight another day.

O’Rourke has enough money in his campaign coffers to to get past this speed bump which might have destroyed the campaign bus of another without the resources to repair it. He’s got a top shelf campaign staff, much of it drawn from previous Obama campaigns. These folks know that every campaign has high and low moments and half the battle is just to survive to the next round. The empathy for Beto in that moment that I mentioned before is something that that a lot of white liberals likely also felt for him. And people who really know the immigration issue know it is simply inaccurate to characterize O’Rourke as somehow insufficient there.

Finally, a lot of people absolutely love when he starts speaking in Spanish. Cory Booker’s side eye, while effective, was shown to be a bit hypocritical once Booker himself launched into a Spanish-language paragraph on stage. (And please spare me, those of you who don’t speak good Spanish, your comparisons and claims about whether either speaks it well: they both do. Beto’s is Mexican Spanish and Cory’s is more Caribbean/Puerto Rican/Dominican, reflecting their neighbors’ dialects. No, Cory did not “speak better Spanish than Beto,” just sit down, please, with that trope.)

Another unfortunate moment for a white guy on stage came when Bill de Blasio cited his black son and many black folks in the audience reported they rolled eyes at that one. Once again, there’s an example of a pretty good ally getting in trouble for virtue signaling about it. I have to admit, it’s a bit tiresome and there’s a downside to having so much of it: white and male allies start to self-silence and clam up. And when later somebody says “Where are our white or male allies at this moment?” Well, if you slap somebody every time he makes even the slightest error, eventually he won’t say anything out loud about a subject in public space even when he is firmly rooting for you. How’s that working out?

But that is the current zeitgeist. We accept the things we cannot change and coexist with them. It’s not going to be over before the 2020 election. And I’ll be surprised if similar dynamics don’t plague Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders tonight on the second debate stage. Julián Castro just showed their rivals that it can be done and how to do it well. And neither of those elder guys is very, ahem, adaptable on these matters.

Nope, no sirree. 202o is not gonna be the year of the white dude, and last night was our first best glimpse at why.

Tulsi Gabbard also had a good night. Unlike Bill de Blasio, she did not go after any of her rivals. But she piqued enough interest that Internet searches on her name rose higher nationwide than those of most other candidates. Peace activists, what might be called Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel voters in other years, probably liked what she said about foreign policy matters. I no longer suspect she’s a stalking horse for Bernie Sanders. To the contrary, I think she is biting his hand the same way she bit the DNCs when supporting him. Tulsi would clearly step on Bernie’s wagging finger to leap cleats-first onto his unkempt head if it would advance her own ambitions. I now think it could be very interesting if next time those two are on the same stage. In sum, let me make an imaginary phone call: Longtime listener, Tulsi, first time caller here. Still not a fan, but you do seem like you could just maybe prove useful before that Hunger Games cannon projects your name on the dome. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

De Blasio, on the other hand, came off as a blowhard, even to this native New Yorker where we all are prone to talking too much. Only slightly less so than John Delaney – who even when he is defending Nancy Pelosi on impeachment as I do annoyed me with how he did it – but de Blasio (“Mayor Bill” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue) is even more of a blowhard than Tim Ryan, which puts him at an Olympian level in this sport. I’ll be glad when by September all those guys are eliminated from this Reality Show.

I was very curious to see Jay Inslee in action and see whether his much-hyped climate change voice could generate some traction for him. After all, he’s the only sitting governor to have qualified among the 20 on these debate stages. But to him I say, “I know Jimmy Carter, I voted for Jimmy Carter, and you, sir are no Jimmy Carter… Nor a Bill Clinton.” Governor Inslee might last a little longer than the other three but eventually the gong will toll for him, too.

It’s just not our year, boys.

And I’m fine with that. You should be too.

Night Two Preview: A Knife Fight More Powerful?

To review the basics: On tonight’s stage will be Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in the middle, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg flanking them, Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Yang at the midfield mark of the left and right sides (where Julián and Tulsi did well from last night), and at the edges: John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennett, Marianne Williamson and Eric Swalwell.

You can bet that Kirsten is studying last night’s tape and Julián’s dance moves. And if Mayor Pete knows what’s good for him he’ll be studying that tape, too, because he may end up playing the Beto role on that stage: the guy with the target painted on his back. And being less “woke” than Beto on racial matters it could prove to be an excruciatingly painful moment – or series of them – for Buttigieg.

However likely I think that Kirsten and Pete will be in dust-ups tonight, I don’t think they will be the only ones to rumble. (West Side Story’s second “Tonight” medley as the Jets and Sharks are heading toward battle is playing in my head right now. Like in the musical there are multiple stories happening on that stage tonight, that could well climax all at once.)

The three top tier people – Joe, Bernie and Kamala – all love a good bar fight, too. And Thursday night’s alright for fighting, get a little action in! I think if one knife comes out all these people have a switchblade in their pocket they won’t be able to resist opening (although Joe and Bernie might mistakenly pull out their combs at that moment).

One issue that didn’t get its due last night was criminal justice reform. Expect that to have some considerable time tonight. And the moderators won’t be able to resist asking others to make the case on why they, and not Biden, are the best to take on Trump. If they have half a brain – which remains to be seen, frankly, over at NBC – they’ll ask Bernie about his narcissistic statements on MSNBC this week claiming the 2016 nomination was stolen from him and saying he won’t guarantee he’ll drop out even if he does poorly. That’s a collapse in his force field you can fly an F-35 plane through! Yeah, Bernie. Keep co-branding with 2016, that year that everybody loves, dude. Somebody on stage, psssst, pass it on, has to know that.

I’m looking forward to seeing Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson in action, since they’re not politicians and I don’t feel like I know either well enough to call them by their first name yet. People I respect speak well of Eric Swalwell. And “The Battle of Colorado” between Bennett and Hickenlooper could be as interesting as the Texan duel last night, although less Texas-sized.

Hickenlooper is almost certain to attack Bernie but I’m not convinced he won’t do it in a way that just allows Bernie to recite FDR quotes from his stump speech. If he can’t come up with a way to do it that throws Sanders off his game he could prove an ancillary piece of information we don’t need. A Kirsten-Kamala tag team, however, will likely take any opening Bernie or Joe give them to slam dunk either through the net. And Bennett I just don’t know well enough – he seems to have all the charisma of a dial tone – but I’m open to being pleasantly surprised.

Just like last night I’ll be commenting live about it at Organize & Win and bouncing off the terrific comments subscribers keep making in the backstage party going on there. Last night our maiden voyage was both informative and really fun. Not a runt comment in the litter! See you there again tonight, subscribers!

(And if you’re a subscriber and want help logging in or setting up your account just email me and we’ll help you get set up before the festivities start at 9 p.m. ET.)

Here is the link to our live commentary on tonight’s debate.

You must be logged in to view this content. If you are not a member, register here!