Footnotes on the 2020 Caucus is an occasional series observing some of the traditions, rituals and oddities of the Iowa presidential caucuses.
Another night, another 10 Democratic presidential candidates, another televised debate. The setting was the same (the Arsht Center in Miami), the moderators were the same (a five-person parade of NBC and MSNBC on-air personalities) and for Little Village, the Slack channel was the same.
Just like we did for the first debate on Wednesday, LV staff members came together — in separate locations — for the two-hour event. I was joined by art director Jordan Sellergren, managing editor Emma McClatchey, digital editor Genevieve Trainor, videographer Jason Smith and photographer Zak Neumann. As part of our ongoing Footnotes of the 2020 Caucus, Slack excerpts has been included in the notes below.
The same but different
The rules were the same as the night before: Candidates were supposed wait until called upon by a moderator to speak, and then they would have only 60 seconds to answer the question, with 30 seconds to answer any follow-up questions.
Wednesday night, it took approximately 20 minutes for the candidates to start breaking those rules. On Thursday, it took three.
Emma [8:56 PM]
Last night, I thought everyone on the stage was interesting enough, and the balance felt interesting. Tonight, it definitely feels too crowded, and there are people who can seriously just go home.
Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado was the first candidate who tried to answer out of turn. It didn’t help him — moderator Savannah Guthrie shut him down. Nothing really helped Bennet on Thursday. He was a bland moderate on a night featuring several bland moderates. Bennet wasn’t even the only bland moderate from Colorado, because John Hickenlooper (former Colorado governor, former mayor of Denver) was also on the stage.
Pass the torch (offer no longer available)
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California — one of four Californians at a podium, along with Sen. Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson — has been trying to come up with a memorable line longer than he’s been a candidate. His previous go-to line was based on pop culture: claiming the mass of 2020 Democratic candidates are like the Avengers, while “the Republicans in 2016 — that was the Hunger Games.”
For the debate, Swalwell went with an historical reference.
“I was 6 years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans,” Swalwell said. “That candidate was then-Senator Joe Biden. Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago. He is still right today.”
It was a clever line, turning 44-year-old Joe Biden’s 1987 invocation of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech (“the torch has been passed to a new generation”) against 76-year-old Biden. But Swalwell immediately began to run it into the ground.
“If we are going to solve the issues of automation, pass the torch,” he said. “If we are going to solve the issues of climate chaos, pass the torch. If we’re going to solve the issue of student loan debt, pass the torch. If we’re going to end gun violence for families who are fearful of sending their kids to school, pass the torch.”
Biden, unsurprisingly, declined to do so.
“I’m still holding onto that torch,” Biden said. “I want to make it clear to you,” The former vice president then began talking about education.
After Biden finished his answer, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg tried to insert himself into the conversation.
“As the youngest guy on the stage, I feel like I probably ought to contribute to the generational …” the 37-year-old Buttigieg said, before being cut off.
Buttigieg has made his relative youth a major part of his stump speech. But just as there’s nothing unique about being a candidate from Colorado this year, there’s nothing unique about being 30-something.
Swalwell is only 14 months older than Buttigieg, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is just 9 months older than the mayor.
But being reminded how old, or how not-uniquely young, they were wasn’t the worst moment for either Biden or Buttigieg on Thursday night.
Biden and the past as present
Biden is not shy when it comes to talking about his past.
“I’m the guy that got a bipartisan agreement at the very end of the campaign, at the very end of our term,” he said early in the evening.
“I’m the guy that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years,” he said later.
“I’m the guy that got the Brady Bill passed, the background checks, number one,” he said still later in the evening.
(All of those statements are, of course, vast oversimplifications.)
But during the second hour of the debate, when Sen. Harris was talking about the racism she encountered as a young black girl in California, she brought up a part of Biden’s past he hadn’t been boasting about.
“I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden,” Harris said. “I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.”
“But I also believe, and it’s personal — and I was actually very — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.”
Harris recalled being a part of the second group of children who were part of the students bused in Berkeley, California, while Biden was working with white supremacist senators from the South to stop federal government support for school desegregation via busing.
Paul [9:04 PM]
Harris: Biden’s not a racist, BUT….
Jordan [9:05 PM]
I can’t bear it
Zak [9:05 PM]
Yesss, hold Joe accountable.
“So I will tell you that, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously,” Harris said.
Biden seemed annoyed with Harris, claiming she was misrepresenting what he had been doing in 1970s when he was working with segregationists to stop federally mandated busing.
“I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education,” Biden said. “That’s what I opposed.”
Drew [9:07 PM]
he just wants to leave it up to the small town racists
states rights joe
“Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” Harris responded. “I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.”
“Because your city council made that decision. It was a local decision,” Biden said, almost as if he was unaware that white supremacists have used the twin mantras of “local control” and “states’ rights,” as a way to avoid having to afford equal rights and opportunities to non-white citizens.
“So that’s where the federal government must step in,” Harris said. “That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.”
Biden was given another 30 seconds to respond, during he rambled about his civil rights record, ending with, “I agree that everybody, once they, in fact — anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry.”
He was not apologizing to Harris. He was apologizing for going slightly over the time limit.
Paul [9:08 PM]
Joe is not equal to this moment.
Emma [9:09 PM]
He sees time’s up and he’s like “thank god, I can stop talking and just shrug”
The moderators moved on to other topics.
Buttigieg as mayor
The discussion of race that gave Harris an opportunity to confront Biden grew out of questions about Pete Buttigieg and some of his actions as mayor in South Bend.
“Your community of South Bend, Indiana, has recently been in uproar over an officer-involved shooting,” Maddow said to the mayor. “The police force in South Bend is now 6 percent black in a city that is 26 percent black.”
“Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?”
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg began bluntly. “My community is in anguish right now because of an officer-involved shooting, a black man, Eric Logan, killed by a white officer. And I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. The officer said he was attacked with a knife, but he didn’t have his body camera on. It’s a mess. And we’re hurting.”
Paul [9:01 PM]
Buttigieg: I’ve failed in the only office I’ve held. Make me president.
Jordan [9:01 PM]
lol damn Paul
Emma [9:02 PM]
“It’s a mess.” Wow. His words don’t inspire confidence, though I guess it’s…nice he’s being honest?
Maddow wasn’t the only one with questions for Buttigieg. Hickenlooper was the first candidate to jump in (with Maddow’s permission).
“I think that the question they’re asking in South Bend and I think across the country is why has it taken so long?” Hickenlooper said. “We had a shooting when I first became mayor [of Denver], 10 years before Ferguson. And the community came together and we created an Office of the Independent Monitor, a Civilian Oversight Commission, and we diversified the police force in two years. We actually did de-escalation training.”
Buttigieg responded by saying he had “taken so many steps toward police accountability that, you know, the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] just denounced me for too much accountability. We’re obviously not there yet, and I accept responsibility for that because I’m in charge.”
Emma [9:03 PM]
I’m almost…*too* accountable
Then Swalwell stepped in (without Maddow’s permission).
“If the [body] camera wasn’t on and that was the policy, you should fire the chief,” the California congressman said.
Buttigieg said the shooting was being investigated, and the officer would be held accountable if necessary.
“But you’re the mayor,” Swalwell insisted. “You should fire the chief — if that’s the policy and someone died.”
Buttigieg did not respond. But Marianne Williamson did.
“All of these issues are extremely important, but they are specifics; they are symptoms,” said the professional spiritual advisor and best-selling author. “And the underlying cause has to do with deep, deep, deep realms of racial injustice, both in our criminal justice system and in our economic system. And the Democratic Party should be on the side of reparations for slavery for this very reason. I do not believe that the average American is a racist, but the average American is woefully undereducated about the history of race in the United States.”
Drew [9:04 PM]
I’m glad Williamson mentioned reparations actually
Throughout the evening, it was clear that Williamson was frustrated that she wasn’t being given more time to speak. According to the New York Times breakdown of speaking times, she was in the bottom three, but still had more time to speak than either Swalwell or Andrew Yang.
But limited speaking time may have worked to Williamson’s advantage. Her comments on race were thoughtful, but as her February campaign stop at Prairie Lights in Iowa City demonstrated, the longer Williamson speaks, the more likely she is to say something that requires a listener to share her spiritual beliefs. (For example, when asked what her environmental policies as president would be, she didn’t name any, but instead talked about current environmental problems as a “moral and spiritual malfunction,” before claiming “the beginning of our environmental crisis was the destruction of the pagan cultures,” which disrupted humanity’s “spiritual and psychological connection to the Earth.”)
Williamson’s response to a question about the “first issue for your presidency” suggests her limitations as a candidate. (But it did delight former New Zealand resident Jordan Sellergren.)
“My first call is to the prime minister of New Zealand, who said that her goal is to make New Zealand the place where it’s the best place in the world for a child to grow up, and I would tell her, ‘Girlfriend, you are so wrong, because the United States of America is going to be the best place in the world for a child to grow up,’” Williamson said.
Zak [9:29 PM]
Lol MW first priority is to call New Zealand?
Jordan [9:29 PM]
Drew [9:30 PM]
you are so on
Jordan [9:30 PM]
They will love that too
Debates in the Trump years
But light moments like that were rare on Thursday night. More typical was a creeping realization, as we listened to candidates pledge to end the Trump administration’s family separation policy for asylum-seekers at the southern border.
Drew [8:39 PM]
It’s wild that ‘I will release children from cages’ gets big applause in 2019
Drew [8:40 PM]
not criticizing, just ridiculous that this is where we’re at
Emma [8:45 PM]
Is it odd to say, I think we’re going to start getting desensitized to the phrase “children in cages” before the end of this race