On the Stage: What Happened at the Debate?

The fourth debate of the Democratic National Party, hosted by CNN and the New York Times, aired live on October 15. Of the twenty candidates currently running for the Democratic ticket, only twelve qualified to appear on the debate stage. Andrew Yang joined the diverse group of politicians (and a billionaire) to speak about his policies once again. @Balshumet gives us insight on Yang’s performance that night.

At 7 p.m. on a brisk fall evening in October, twelve Democratic hopefuls took the stage in Westerville, Ohio. The event was the largest showcase of presidential candidates in Democratic Party history; the momentous occasion was marked by fireworks and passions behind the podium that affected even the even-keeled Andrew Yang.

The poster boy of Universal Basic Income and the soothsayer of the fourth industrial revolution enjoyed not only increased attention to his central concerns about the American economy and people, but focused debate on the particulars of his policies. After an opening response in the affirmative about supporting an inquiry into Donald Trump’s impeachment, the moderators pitted his Universal Basic Income plan, the Freedom Dividend, against Bernie Sanders’ Federal Jobs Guarantee. This was the first time the moderators have made a point to contrast Yang’s own policies to another candidate, especially one of the forerunners. Sanders promised a job for everyone who wants one, but Yang was more than prepared with a response.

As is typical for the data-driven candidate, Yang pointed out that the practicalities of supplying jobs to everyone who wanted one prohibited this plan from being viable. “What are the jobs? Who manages you? What if you don’t like your job?” He asked in rapid fire succession, poking multiple holes in the utility of the Federal Jobs Guarantee. Additionally, he reiterated that it undermined the value and importance of Americans who do vital unpaid work, like his wife and other caretakers. He also raised the specter of the failed government retraining efforts, especially in Ohio, which lead him into direct conflict with Elizabeth Warren.

Warren claimed that trade, not automation, had resulted in job losses in the swing states, a claim Yang vigorously rebutted. He jumped back into the foreground, saying that his “friends in California are piloting self-driving trucks.” Yang then asked, “What is that going to mean for the 3.5 million truckers or the 7 million Americans who work in truck stops, motels, and diners that rely upon the truckers getting out and having a meal?” Warren pivoted, talking about her plan to increase Social Security solvency, and give retirees an extra 200 dollars a month. She did not, however, directly respond to Yang’s question about automation: She said that she needed more information, telling Yang, “I want to understand the data.” The exchange ended with a promise from Yang to show Warren the data after the debate. Time will tell if she comes back in line with most expert opinions about the dangers and effects of automation after an exchange of information off stage, but one thing was apparent: Andrew Yang would not allow her to stick her head in the sand on this issue.

Yang also butted heads with Warren on the topic of instituting a wealth tax, using examples from European governments to explain that it would have implementation problems. He acknowledged that Warren was headed in the right direction, but pointed out that her solution would not solve the widening wealth gap in America.

All in all, Yang performed admirably. He was brimming with confidence and vibrancy. Gone were the shots of him silently waiting for the conversation to move back to him; in this debate, he even interrupted an exchange to point out that one of the biggest issues of “Big Tech,” them profiting from their users parasitically, would be solved if data was private property, which happens to be one of his policy proposals. Yang was impassioned, and cognizant, delivering his trademark succinct and clear answers, while being much more willing to engage and exchange with his fellow debaters. On the topic of the opioid crisis, his fellow candidates even agreed with his position and language. After Yang declared that the crisis is “a disease of capitalism run amok,” both Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Kamala Harris echoed his sentiments, going further demanding that the Pharmaceutical executives responsible should be in prison.

The only stumble was on a question about foreign affairs. This area of Yang’s policy is mostly predominated by his pledge to end wars and help American veterans, and so he regularly finds himself out of his depth when asked about specifics, like actions against Putin. Nevertheless, Yang pointed out a weakness of the United States in terms of cybersecurity, and his policy commitments to fighting 21st century problems of technological innovations was far ahead of the rest of the field’s claims to somehow “expose Putin’s corruption” to international sanction. The appearance of the cool, collected, and funny Yang of his long form interviews was a welcome triumph over his first debate appearance in June. Some of this, surely, was a matter of his continued practice and increased experience, but points must be given to CNN and the moderators.

The second debate in August, which was also hosted by CNN, was widely considered to be Yang’s best before this one in October. The moderators worked to ensure people stuck to their time, and prevented exchanges from becoming locked in an attention vortex around the highest polling front-runners by, at times, moving onto other topics, and in others asking different candidates to give their opinions about the current topic. They even avoided asking the Taiwanese-American man about China for the fourth debate in a row! That being said, there were still multiple times when they allowed discussions to meander, or were not equitable in the usage of the ability to reply. They allowed the discussion of Warren’s Medicare For All plan to drag on well past the point of usefulness, and repeatedly ignored people making direct claims about Yang’s policies in a way that denied him the opportunity to reply. Still, between their decisiveness in cutting off speakers and the array of questions chosen from across areas of expertise, the network, and its moderators, hosted the most equitable debate so far.

A direct result of CNN’s balanced moderation was the effective communication found in the debate overall. People engaged in heated exchanges, but they were on clear topics, and with moderators holding their feet to the metaphorical flames, candidates were forced to give real answers. For example, Pete Buttigieg pointed out that O’Rourke lacked a plan for his mandatory assault weapon buyback program, but only after the hosts themselves asked the candidate how he planned to enforce the program without going door to door. And while most candidates were forced into specifics, some, like billionaire Tom Steyer, Sen. Cory Booker, or former Vice Pres. Joe Biden stuck to platitudes at best and a mishmash of talking points at worst, despite the efforts of the hosts and their fellow debaters. Biden, especially, was prone to misstatements and gaffes, often cutting himself off and resorting to memorized talking points. He even refused to clearly answer a question about the suitability of his family’s investment in Ukraine. Despite that, with the heat of the cross-hairs on Warren instead on this outing, Biden turned in his finest performance at the televised debates.

So, how will all of this shake out in terms of the candidate’s campaigns? It’s too soon to know anything for sure, but Yang reported nearly $500,000 in donations and 10,000 questions to his open “ask me anything” event that Friday, less than 24 hours post-debate. On top of that, Emerson Polling and Politico released post-debate polls that showed Yang at 3% and 4% nationally and 4% in California among likely Democratic voters. Both of his recent national polls are above his average, and the California poll is a reversal of a slip in polling for the state. There has been an increased recognition of the seriousness of Yang’s candidacy between the third and fourth debates, and there’s no sign of it stopping now. There has been more than 40 mentions of the candidate on cable television post-debate and dozens of news articles, and while some of these articles are negative, there’s little of the dismissive attitude found in media attention from the first half of this year. As Yang had slipped to polling 7th nationally before hitting the debate stage, and still had the worst name recognition among the candidates, these signs are all positive for our favorite longshot UBI pioneer.

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