Debates 2020

Will Any Democratic Debater Acknowledge Math?

Early debates actually tell us a good deal about where political parties are heading.


It is both fashionable and morally defensible to pre-emptively mock the two-day, 20-candidate, official opening of the Democratic presidential primary debate season, which kicks off tonight at 9 p.m. EDT in Miami. It's a "circus," it's a potential "horror show," it's "the largest gathering of liberals since Woodstock," and those are just some of the characterizations by comparatively straightlaced newspapers.

But opening night debates can also have their charms. The first GOP skirmish of the 2012 cycle, for example, featured the glorious sight of two libertarians—Ron Paul and Gary Johnson—opposing torture, advocating immediate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling for radical cuts in spending, and demanding that the federal government end its ruinous war on drugs. "If we legalize heroin tomorrow," Paul said, in one of my all-time favorite Republican presidential debate moments, "is everyone going to use heroin? How many people here would use heroin if it were legal?"

First debates, particularly when (unlike that surreal 2011 GOP gathering) they include all the major candidates, can actually tell us a great deal about where a political party is headed. Front-runners reveal, through where they backpedal and where they pounce, just which undercurrents of grassroots party sentiment they're afraid of. Runner-ups test out their haymakers and foreshadow the terrains where the primary contest will and won't be fought on. Fringe candidates take their best shots, many of them never to be heard from again, taking both their important and esoteric issues away with them.

So it was on October 13 (!), 2015, in the Democratic season opener, where consensus favorite Hillary Clinton (then polling around 43 percent nationwide), took on democratic socialist insurgent Bernie Sanders (25 percent), and the one-percenter trio of Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee. It was the one-and-done debate for the latter two political iconoclasts, both of whose candidacies centered around forceful critiques of America's (and Clinton's) disastrous post-9/11 war-making in the Middle East.

(Webb was also the only candidate to answer the question "Do Black lives matter?" by saying "Every life in this country matters," for which he was roundly excoriated, despite the fact that, as Ed Krayewski pointed out back then, "In an alternate universe, where enough of the Democratic base is demanding attention be paid to criminal justice reform, perhaps former Virginia senator Jim Webb is the insurgent candidate, or even the frontrunner." This, too, was a harbinger of Democratic tendencies to come—rhetoric on race and criminal justice routinely trumps record.)

But the biggest tell and foreshadowing of things to come from that first 2015 debate was how economic progressivism would rout foreign policy as the white-hot center of lefty concerns. Clinton backpedaled furiously on her prior support for free trade agreements, on her coziness with Wall Street, on her reluctance to go Full Bernie on entitlements. As I wrote at the time,

On guns, on responding rhetorically to the phrase "black lives matter," and especially on economic policy, Clinton is responding to the contemporary passions of the Democratic grassroots by tacking leftward. So it's illustrative for both the candidate and the party to observe which issues the Democratic frontrunner does not feel evident pressure to 'absorb new information' about.

Chief among them is a critique that dominated lefty discourse in 2007-08, and then almost immediately vanished as a hot topic: the imperial presidency.

Despite being surrounded on the debate stage by critics of U.S. military overreach, Clinton gave not one inch, having the gall to declare her unprovoked, unauthorized regime-change war in Libya as "smart power at its best." We need to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria "to get Russia to the table." National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden needs to face the music. And so on.

We know what happened next: Over the course of the two-candidate race, Sanders (and his enthusiastic supporters) pushed Clinton and the party very noticeably to the left on economics, while leaving her essentially unmoved on foreign policy and criminal justice. (Bernie also, in that first debate's most famous line, essentially forfeited as an issue Clinton's serially dishonest accounts of handling her State Department emails, thereby leaving that weakness unexploited until Donald Trump came along.)

So what important early indicators should we be looking out for in this Democratic debate season opener? Here are three:

1) Will any non-fringe candidate bring up math?

Democrats love talking about being the "party of science" when it comes to climate change. (On genetically modified foods, not so much.) But what about arithmetic?

In living memory, there was a prominent Democrat (a Clinton, no less!) who famously invoked the A-word when talking about Republican deficit-busting policies. Hillary's main critique of Bernie's various Medicare-for-all plans during the 2016 primaries was that "the numbers just don't add up." But are candidates even pretending to count anymore?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is "yes," though that's mostly on the long-tail end of the polling spectrum. "The explosion of our national debt is a threat to our economic and national security," former Maryland congressman John Delaney (June national polling average: 0.4 percent) warned in February. When asked last month why she wasn't endorsing several of the more fanciful spending proposals in the 2020 field, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) told CNBC: "I don't want to saddle this generation and the ones after it with even more debt." (Klobuchar's June polling average is 1.1 percent.)

And former congressman Beto O'Rourke (polling average: 3.4 percent), who was a member of the comparatively fiscal hawkish New Democrat bloc in Congress, routinely complains in his stump rap that "we are $22 trillion in debt, and deficit spending to the tune of one trillion dollars annually added to that." Back in 2012, he even said, "We're running $1 trillion annual deficits and we cannot continue to spend ourselves into ruin. We need to elect people who are gonna go up there and make some tough choices."

O'Rourke, Klobuchar, and Delaney share a stage tonight with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (12.2 percent), one day after the Congressional Budget Office projected that the national debt-to-GDP ratio will soon hit "unprecedented levels" despite the previous near-decade of economic growth. So, who will be the one to point out that Warren's fusillade of spending proposals can't possibly begin to add up?

"Delaney will offer a clear distinction between candidates offering false promises and our campaign which is built on actual results," campaign manager John Davis told Bloomberg. "Warren and [Cory] Booker have both signed on to Senator Sanders' Medicare For All bill which would make private insurance illegal. We plan to have a discussion about that."

Whether Klobuchar or O'Rourke feel brave enough to stand up for budget math will be a key early indicator of whether bothering to pay for stuff is still a live rhetorical issue in the Democratic Party.

2) Will Joe Biden cave on trade?

The early-polling frontrunner (31.9 percent average in June) sticks out from the field like a sore old thumb in all kinds of ways, most prominently on trade and marijuana. That is, until last month.

Biden, who I have analogized to a rusty weather vane (he'll creak in the direction of the prevailing political winds, eventually), announced five weeks ago—after a long and unfortunately productive life as a drug warrior—that he now favors decriminalizing marijuana on the federal level. Welcome to the party, Grandpa Joe!

But will the would-be restorative establishmentarian feel the pressure to make a similar volte-face on free trade? So far, Biden has staked out ground to the contrary, campaigning directly against President Donald Trump's tariff-happy approach to economic policy. This comes at a time when Democratic voters, in reaction to Trump, are veering more sharply pro-trade than ever.

Delaney and O'Rourke have also been campaigning against Trump's tariffs, as has South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (7.4 percent). Will the latter turn heel on Bernie Sanders Thursday, drawing a sharper distinction between the centrist and progressive lanes?

The Atlantic this week asked all 23 Democratic presidential candidates where they stand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Obama administration agreement that Biden helped negotiate and Trump promptly bolted from. The results were about as slippery as a tub full of eels. (Biden, for one, was silent.) Whether he or any other Democrats will feel emboldened to argue positively for the virtues of international exchange may tell us whether the free trade wing of the party is back from the dead.

3) Will any candidate back free speech?

Want to die tonight or tomorrow? Play this drinking game: Knock back a shot each time you hear a candidate negatively reference Citizens United.

It has long since become Democratic cant to bewail and advocate the overturning of the 2010 Supreme Court case that legalized the airing of political documentaries before an election. Though usually politicians just wave away any free-speech considerations and move straight to the allegedly oligarchical corruption of money in politics.

Political attacks on free speech seem to intensify each week. More recently, following the lead of a president who is awful on the issue, some conservatives are leaping at the opportunity to put the federal government in charge of figuring out what is and isn't a neutral speech platform.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.) right now is a lonely voice in his party, objecting, on First Amendment grounds, both to rewriting the Communications Decency Act and to passing the Sex Trafficking Act of 2018. So will any of the 20 candidates join Wyden in standing athwart the social media panic, yelling "Hey, uh, slow down a bit"?

With the 20 candidates likely in vigorous agreement over the immigration crisis, climate change, and loathing Donald Trump, the chances of this two-night extravaganza being a snoozefest is alarmingly high. But that doesn't mean it won't tell us something. Two-party politics tends to work like a pendulum, with the opposition re-forming in reaction to (and sometimes in imitation of) the sitting president. Trump has been an unusually disruptive force in both the GOP and the country writ large, leaving the possibilities for reactionary reinvention wide open.

Your move, Democrats.

NEXT: Hawaii Governor Plans to Veto Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill, Claiming Abuses Don't Occur

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  1. lol.

    1. If you expect subsantial answers to any of your questions you need to adjust expectations.

    2. Imagine how much better off this country could be if everyone in that picture were bulldozed into a landfill.

    3. This website is now the biggest piece of shit of any major website on the web. And I’ll bet Reason paid big money for this abortion of a revamp.

      FUCKING FIX IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. “Will Any Democratic Debater Acknowledge Math?”

    Don’t count on it…

    1. Math is a tool of the patriarchy, don’t you know.

      1. Math is a social construct of the white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy used to oppress marginalized peoples.

        1. And of meanies that don’t want to give away free stuff.

  3. “With the 20 candidates likely in vigorous agreement over the immigration crisis”

    For us Koch / Reason libertarians, this is the most important issue. Orange Hitler hasn’t built a wall, thankfully, but he’s done something even worse — he’s built literal concentration camps. And the Democrats, despite their flaws, are steadily moving toward the open borders position.

    The choice in 2020 is clear.


    1. This is, actually, officially Reason’s position. Make common cause with anyone in support of Open Borders ( for the US ).

      Nick declares @Reason’s “core value” as Open Borders:
      In the 21st century, libertarians are going to have make common cause with the globalists of all parties, with the people whose core value is the right of individuals to move freely around the planet.

  4. Come, on. Math is patriarchal, racist, and oppressive. It contradicts woke post-modern definitions of reality. And it makes liberal arts majors’ heads hurt.

    1. “Math is hard!” — Democrat Barbie

      1. #FakeNews
        That is *not* what Barbie said.

        Math Class is tough!
        — Teen Talk Barbie

    2. Hey! I’m a liberal arts major and I can do math!

      p.s. Thankfully I graduated before the entire liberal arts curriculum got flushed down the proggy toilet…

      1. We’re in the same boat.

        I jumped ship from academia (I was in a PhD program for medieval literature and Humanities Informatics) when I saw which way the winds were blowing in the late aughts.

        I miss the work I did, but can’t help feeling like I dodged a bullet when I told the institution of academia and those who comprise said institution to fuck the fuck off.

        1. So you’re a barista?

        2. I jumped ship from academia (I was in a PhD program for medieval literature and Humanities Informatics) when I saw which way the winds were blowing in the late aughts.

          Wow – we have nearly parallel lives. I got a PhD in medieval literature (focusing on history of science, mathematics and theology) in 2004, and left my job as a lecturer in 2005 to go into construction for the exact same reasons. I was explicitly told by my thesis adviser that the work I was doing would be framed as anti-feminist, and that I should work in some Islamic history to avoid the appearance of Euro-centrism (she was being honestly helpful – she had a bit of an anti-feminist streak herself and didn’t like the way things were headed ideologically).

          Meanwhile, while I was learning Latin and analytic geometry and mastering late-medieval philosophical and scientific concepts, my colleagues were bloviating about Margaret Atwood and the tyranny of having to learn grammar. English PhD students butt-hurt that they had to learn grammar!

          I studied Islamic history because I found it interesting, and you can’t ignore it if you’re doing history of science and mathematics, but I wasn’t about to change my whole focus and approach for political correctness, and I found I had to make myself achieve a certain level of academic rigor since the institution certainly wasn’t going to make me.

          It became pretty clear the last couple of years I was there that any future I might have in academia was going to be extremely difficult and fraught with antagonism.

        3. “…… fuck the fuck off.”

          That makes me think of one of my favorite shows……

  5. Chaffee isn’t “an iconoclast”, he’s a literal, clinical retard.

  6. Maybe 3-4 will acknowledge math (deficits) but Warren won’t be among them.

    Still, that 3-4 is more than the number of GOP/fundie nuts who acknowledged evolution in a hand show during one recent Klown Kar.

    When a completely discredited fairly tale like Creationism grips your party you deserve the anti-Science label.

    1. Evolution and Climate Change are the ONLY science topics that the Democrats are behind, because they are the ONLY science topics that nudge over into politics. One is about what textbooks must be used in government schools, and the other is about raising taxes and banning things.

      In all other areas of science the rank and file Democrats are absolute lunkheads. Nuclear energy, GMOs, organic food, vaccinations, etc. Most Democrats still think food should be free of chemicals and dihydrogen monoxide banned.

      1. dihydrogen monoxide banned.


      2. “Evolution and Climate Change are the ONLY science topics that the Democrats are behind”

        Talk to the “evolution believing” Dems about human biodiversity, sexual dimorphism, and sexual *behavioral* dimorphism.

    2. Why are you still posting here after Reason banned you?

      1. It. Was. Just. A. Lost. Password.


        1. Buttplug the Pedo “Forget that I’ve lied repeatedly about paying my bets and running sockpuppets, and BELIEVE ME when I tell you I wasn’t banned for posting kiddie porn links despite PEOPLE SEEING THEM”


  7. Dems should have nominated Webb last time.
    Hickenlooper or Delaney could win this time. No one else has a chance.

    1. Moulton is also good.

      At least 15 of them are terrible.

      1. Yeah, Moulton supports common sense gun safety legislation which is popular with left-libertarians like us.

        What’s so terrible about the other 15, though? Admittedly none would be the most qualified Presidential candidate ever (Hillary Clinton still holds that distinction), but there are plenty of excellent choices.

        1. #LibertariansForAStateMonopolyOnTheUseOfForce

    2. Sorry, but there will never be a president named Hickenlooper. Or Buttigieg.

    3. “No one else has a chance.”


      The Democratic candidate is guaranteed to win the next Presidential election. Just on the economy alone, Drumpf has been way too disastrous to get a second term.

      1. Yes indeed. I am suffering with my raise due to multiple job offers. And oh the horror of the tax cuts that allowed me to keep more of what I earned.

  8. I was once at a Republican Party committee meeting that was being addressed by the city mayor. The Democrat mayor said it was refreshing to be able to explain his policy proposal without first having to give a lesson in arithmetic, as he had to do for the Democratic central committee.

    That was then. Today is now, and the Republicans are just as stupid on the math front as Democrats.

    Hell, California has a law that the state budget MUST be balanced. But no one in office actually understands what that means. We’re only half a year away from a budget that bankrupts the state, but the legislature will pass it anyway, the governor will sign it, and the courts will refuse to review it. NOT that the state is in danger of declaring bankruptcy. There’s no such thing as bankruptcy without a court to declare it.

    1. Our state budget is balanced by future tax surpluses. Duh!

    2. ” We’re only half a year away from a budget that bankrupts the state,”

      You sound like a Wrecker trying to dispirit the People.

    3. Its not that the Republicans are stupid on math, its that the Democrats have taught them that, at the very least, *ignoring* the math can get you the votes you need to win.

      Democrats: Promise to give everybody (except the rich people), everything, forever. They just have to tax the rich people more, because they have infinite wealth…and they *totally* won’t expand the definition of “rich” to include YOU. What’s debt again?

      Republicans: Refuse to actually decrease the deficit or debt by decreasing spending. But do so by promising to take less of YOUR money.

      On a nationwide level, the end result is the same, but at least with the Republicans I’m allowed to keep enough of MY money to personally prepare for the inevitable financial collapse…

      Its the grasshopper and the ant. Winter IS coming, because there’s nobody to stop it. The two sides are preparing accordingly: one working to feed itself from its own labor, the other planning to feed itself off the labor, and when THAT runs out, the corpses of the other…until THEY TOO run out…

      (Ya, grasshoppers aren’t typically predatory, but you get the point.)

  9. Why would they? The last time they accumulated 12 trillion dollars of new debt in 8 years you sat there like trained seals cheering them on and then started shitting your nappy and blaming Republicans as soon as the blessed nigga left the white house.

  10. dude the fish-fry photo-op is just embarrassing. en masse should be ashamed.

  11. “Early debates actually tell us a good deal about where political parties are heading.”

    Its the final nomination is where the political parties are going.
    I see Warren and Harris running for the POTUS position for the democrats next year.
    Just think of it.
    An all female, an (almost) all minority tag team that will promise anything to anyone as they sail further and further left of Lenin.
    I’m sure these two would win hands down as they offer free shit to all the near-illiterates and the gullible who are more than willing to sell their souls to Uncle Sam’s plantation.

    1. Sadly your are probably right. If they can get by Crazy Joe without being molested, they would capture almost there entire female vote just because.

  12. With the 20 candidates likely in vigorous agreement over the immigration crisis, climate change, and loathing Donald Trump, the chances of this two-night extravaganza being a snoozefest is alarmingly high.

    I’m sure it will be. But at some point they’ll have a come-to-Trump moment when some will decide they want to stand out from the pack, and for that they either need to promise to break the bank to buy your vote or they’ll need to be belligerent and outrageous. And I don’t know who among them could pull off the latter.

    1. does make a t-shirt look alright

    2. The only one too pretty to do math.

  13. “the largest gathering of liberals since Woodstock,”

    This is funny on multiple levels. The modern DNC is a little more Weather Underground than Summer of Love, I hate to say it.

  14. Feel the Clyburn!

  15. This is begging for some WWE Royal Rumble type intrigue and storylines.

    And I’m still not convinced we don’t see an 11th hour Oprah entry, probably in February.

  16. Don’t worry the *Super-ministry* will save us all:
    All the candidates on the stage will have high level jobs to follow through the green leap forward! The time has come comrades, a green utopia awaits

  17. If you haven’t realized Dems doubletalk you are still naive. You can’t have a welfare state and deal with national debt. It’s unpossible and any Dem who says otherwise is just trying to sound good.

  18. In that picture, Biden very much looks like a man who’s been in prison for 25 years for rape

  19. Pretty rich when Reason attempts to lecture others on free speech.

    I guarantee there aren’t any “yes” answers to the math question. None of those named is willing to cut any entitlement. Now I realize that the current Wokatarian dogma believes that tax cuts are “expenditures” and that the welfare state must be funded, but reality doesn’t really care about your feelings.

  20. Political math has been and always will be:
    figures don’t lie, but liars figure.

  21. […] before the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 cycle, I argued that early debates can actually tell us a lot about where a political party is heading, and that […]

  22. […] before the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 cycle, I argued that early debates can actually tell us a lot about where a political party is heading, and that […]

  23. […] before the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 cycle, I argued that early debates can actually tell us a lot about where a political party is heading, and that […]

  24. […] before the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 cycle, I argued that early debates can actually tell us a lot about where a political party is heading, and that […]

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