Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


No Dirty Tricks

My son made me watch the Democratic debate this week (a first!) and I’m glad I did. What a contrast to the Republican debate!

I love to read the reviews of debates like this and, more than any other time, I was shocked at how the media interpreted the result compared to my understanding.

My analysis first and then I’ll do a round-up of what the pundits are saying.

I don’t think debates like this are a zero-sum game, especially at this stage in the race. Each participant has different goals and it’s possible for more than one candidate to achieve their objectives. For example,


Hillary Clinton is the front-runner by an overwhelming margin. She is unpopular within her own party and there’s a sense that she is the inevitable candidate because she is the inevitable candidate. She needed to do well enough to assure her supporters that she really is the candidate that she thinks she is; well enough to convince Biden that he would be wasting his time to join the race; and to show just enough charm and deference to Democrats further to her left that she is not a complete robot and/or tool of the plutocracy. Hillary achieved her goals.


Bernie Sanders needed to excite his supporters and to demonstrate that he is not the crazy socialist that everyone says he is. He also needed to make a good introduction to the people who are seeing him for the first time. I’m sure he knows as well as anyone that he is a long-shot but if he can move the Overton Window to the left, he is a winner. Bernie achieved his goals.


Martin O’Malley probably doesn’t expect to become president either but he didn’t disgrace himself. I doubt that he moved the needle on his campaign to be president but he probably made it a little bit more likely that he’ll get a post in the next Clinton administration. He’s probably content with that.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb should just stay home for the next debate. They lost.


The day after the debate, the mainstream pundits proclaimed with one voice that Hillary was the overwhelming winner and that the other candidates were a disgrace.

Hillary Clinton won. She won because she’s a strong debater. She won because Bernie Sanders is not. She won because the first Democratic presidential debate focused on liberal policies — and not her email scandal or character.” — Ron Fournier, The National Journal

“Hillary Clinton won because all of her opponents are terrible.” — Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker

Clinton demonstrated that she was, by far, the best presidential candidate onstage. Indeed, she may have been the only person onstage actually running for president. […snip…] But none of them waged the kind of frontal assault that would be required to dislodge a front-runner who commands Clinton’s breadth of institutional support. — Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

The commentators on the right actually thought that the whole debate was a setup, staged to make Hillary look presidential.

The most irritating criticism though came from those voices of the center-right who have been telling us for years that there’s no virtue left in politics and that everyone just wants to get in a cheap shot or score points with sound-bites. When—finally!—there’s a debate where politicians talk about the issues, they’re all aghast at the lack of character assassination.

Here’s David Brooks on the Newshour.

…the one advantage the Republicans have is they actually, a bunch of them want to be president. On the Democratic side, only one person wants to be president. That’s Hillary Clinton.


But the other factor is, the Republicans are actually arguing and fighting with each other. And what I saw up there was Hillary Clinton performing extremely well, and four other guys lying down and let her, letting her have the nomination. It’s like Bernie Sanders held up the white flag of surrender when he refused to really go after her on the character and moral issue, which is his only way in. — David Brooks, The Newshour

Really, David? The only way for Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, to distinguish himself from the centrist front-runner is on moral issues?

Ross Douthat was even more nakedly critical of Bernie’s hesitance to get down and dirty.

by declining to attack Clinton on the issues where she’s actually most vulnerable — issues that have driven down her numbers with swing voters these last few months, issues that make her a weaker-than-expected general-election bet — Sanders is preserving his present popularity at the expense of any possibility of actually knocking off the frontrunner, actually beating her at the polls.—Ross Douthat, NY Times

Does it not occur to them that Bernie has no interest in winning a dirty tricks campaign? Even if he doesn’t win, he can shift the debate more significantly by staying true to his principles.

Rare among the pundits, Michelle Goldberg saw this.

His statement made him look like a mensch and a man of principle, ensuring that the debate remained a surprisingly substantive exchange on the issues he cares about most, rather a GOP-style pro-wrestling match. He actually seemed less interested in taking down the front-runner than in elevating his own ideas. That’s hugely rare in a politician. Clinton supporters who want a more progressive America have reason to be grateful for her strongest challenger. — Michelle Goldberg, Slate

AlterNet points out how much Bernie’s performance did for him in the polls.

Bernie Won All the Focus Groups & Online Polls, So Why Is the Media Saying Hillary Won the Debate? Bernie Sanders by all objective measures “won” the debate. Hands down. I don’t say this as a personal analysis of the debate; the very idea of “winning” a debate is silly to me. I say this because based on the only relatively objective metric we have, online polls and focus groups, he did win. And it’s not even close. —Adam  Johnson, AlterNet


Bernie did pretty well in GooglePoints too.


In the end though, I have to agree with Matt Yglesias.

Clinton, in short, isn’t a flawless candidate, nor did she deliver a flawless debate performance. But she doesn’t need to be flawless to win — she just needs to be better than the opposition. And against a relatively weak field, she dominated. — Matt Yglesias, Vox


12 responses to No Dirty Tricks

Rob October 18, 2015

What Hillary needs is unearned accolades from a media who sums up the political race the way they did this debate. People who didn’t watch the debate will just shrug it off, because they’ve been told to expect Hillary to win. The mismatch between the debat I watched and the way it was reported was jaw-dropping to me. The online polls tell the story, it’s just questionable whether enough people see them to matter. I don’t agree with Bernie Sanders’ politics, but I’m excited to see a person of principal making this big of an impact in the election.

Matt Stave October 18, 2015

Well said. Good for you for speaking up.

I don’t think those who have the most to lose by Bernie winning would allow the press they own to say much positive about him beyond he has undeniably newsworthy attendance for many of his events.

Or – more generously, the pundits out-of-sync with the numbers you cite are more savvy than the unwashed masses expressing their own personal views, and are correctly evaluating his performance in the context of what would be practically required to win an election on a platform that would be uncomfortable to the real masters-of-the-universe.

Perhaps they can get SNL to blunt some of his momentum, a frontal assault on a demographic where he’s gained alarming traction.

Maybe two F.U. candidates on either end of the spectrum doing so well now might be cause for guarded optimism for the next election, or might be seen by those running the show as a meaningful warning to dial things back a notch.

Ragged Clown October 19, 2015

I like to believe that the commentators I care about are not easily swayed by veiled threats from the people who pay their salaries (Hey! I watched The Newsroom!). I prefer to think that they are all caught up in the same hive mind that they always get caught up in. They didn’t see Bernie doing well because the script says that he wouldn’t do well.

I’m also excited to see someone of principle doing well even if his politics don’t line up exactly with mine. It’s a little bit frightening to see Trump continuing to dominate the other side, while pundits chant repeatedly “he’ll tank any day now” and “this time he’s ruined himself for sure”. I hope the millionaires and billionaires feel a little of that same fear and I hope the puppet-masters who pull the Democratic strings notice that inequality is actually rather important to a lot of people willing to vote.

Interesting times!

Rob October 19, 2015

Yeesh. Trump is a demagogue. The best I can say about him is that he’s forcing people to talk about some topics without some form of ad hominem attack blunting the debate, mostly because he could care less about ad hominems directed at himself (or anyone else). Personally, I prefer Dr. Carson, which just made you wrinkle your nose, but I agree in general with his politics on the topics that he can most influence as President. I honestly don’t think there’s any way for Trump to get the nomination, much less the Presidency.

    Ragged Clown October 21, 2015

    Ross Douthat has a post today about how Trump attracts all those people who have bought the lies about how libtards want to turn this country into soviet Russia but don’t trust the Establishment to do anything about it. I pretty much buy that narrative myself.

    I used to think that there was no way that Trump would get the nomination. Now I don’t think he can be stopped.

    Ragged Clown October 21, 2015

    I wonder if there’s a similar effect for Dr Carson, except he draws all the people who

    a) don’t want a demagogue.
    b) would rather prefer a Christian.

    Ragged Clown October 20, 2015

    It could be exciting if Webb runs as an independent. I think the best thing that can happen to politics in the USA is for a realignment that untangles the current orgy of strange bedfellows on each side. Fiscal conservatives + Big Army + Big Church + Tea Party + Libertarians + Big Business + social conservatives + xenophobes don’t have a natural home together. Similarly Enviros + SJWs + nanny state + socialists + identity politics (from A to LGBT to Z) + Occupy would be better off going their own way. One strong centrist with a credible run at the president could tear the moderates away from each side and result in a health realignment.

    Sadly, I don’t think Webb is the man to do it, but maybe a Bloomberg? Trump maybe? It would be awesome to see the old stalemates broken!

Ragged Clown October 20, 2015

Interesting to see that all the responders to this post so far are so closely clustered (according to my speculative and unauthorized analysis) on the political compass and no one else from my corner has replied yet.

Any other lower-lefties out there?

Don October 20, 2015

Political compass is a more than a bit academic and, IMO, doesn’t map well onto the American political divide (for the reason of “strange bedfellows” you stated above). Also, it completely omits some of the attributes that I consider most highly when voting. Agree/disagree questions I might add…

Authenticity is an important attribute of a good leader.
An effective leader must be articulate to get things done.
Compromise is better than stalemate.
All is fair in war and politics because the ends justify the means.
Omitting or exaggerating points to influence others is good politics.
Politicians are beholden to the public interest groups who fund their campaigns.
Science and data should inform a person’s political position.

And so on… FWIW, it put me slightly into the lower left with you. Which might be very true from an academic perspective. I won’t know which party I’ll be supporting in 2016 until the nominees are selected, and maybe not even then. Trump versus Clinton would be a very different decision for voters than Bush versus Sanders. Clinton versus Bush would be a very interesting one because they share many attributes (specific policies notwithstanding). And then there’s the folks that tell you to vote the party because of the supreme court, but I don’t agree with those folks because they are either being tricky or tricked.

    Ragged Clown October 20, 2015

    Welcome to the lower left, Don! We’d be very glad to have you.

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