Debate worthy: The Democratic debates

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Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us a lot to be thankful for. Unfortunately, many in my generation probably just rejoice over the prospect of a day off.

If Monday was a freebie for you, that might be just as well. You had a day off to process the events of Sunday in their entirety. While Seattle residents likely suffered through the horror of a depressing Seahawks loss, CNN Money’s Brian Stelter reported that NBC had 10.2 million viewers glued to Bernie Sander’s defensive plays.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Both CBS and ABC reported lower ratings and viewership for the November and December debates, with pre-yuletide politics predictably averaging the least at roughly 7.8 million viewers tuning in.

Whether you watched the Seahawks lose or the Democrats debate, it’s clear that some people are beginning to step up their game, while others may need to rethink their strategy. (For those who watched neither, you likely saved yourself some frustration. And … somehow I stereotyped so as not to allow the possibility of anyone watching both. Apologies, politically-minded sports nuts!)

Actually, given the nature of most political debates, watching the latest Democratic Debate was not the worst way to spend an evening. Of course, compared to the viewership of the GOP debates, the numbers aren’t that impressive. The GOP viewership totaled approximately 11 million in the latest — and least-watched — debate.

My bias is clearly showing here, but I have a theory that goes beyond the inconvenient show times. It is admittedly more fun to watch a lively bunch of Republicans (and a Trump) attack each other with venom and machismo than it is to watch even the most spiteful Bernie/Hilary faceoff.

Speaking of which, the interaction between these two finally heated up this Sunday. Sanders nearly lost his voice — literally, but never metaphorically. He defended himself from attacks on the consistency of his record and his support for our current president, and he even raised a few concerns of his own regarding the honesty of his primary opponent.

He has yet to fill us in on all of his strategies, but that’s not for lack of earnest effort. To the contrary, it’s easy to see why he has such appeal: He’s just not a good liar, so it’s harder to come up with all those phony little details based on assumptions and speculation about how any given plan would play out.

As for Clinton, she employed her usual intelligence, boldness and preparedness, using her political canines to bite into specific policy plans, outlining her experience and pointing out the superior level of detail and thought. She might as well have worn a shirt that read, “Just go to my website. It’s all there.” Seriously.

O’Malley, on the other hand, is the undeniable third wheel here. However, it looks like someone finally woke up — and not a moment too soon. Despite speaking noticeably less than his fellow candidates (not his fault), he made concise points on both his policy items and general viewpoints, all while throwing in good-natured jokes and daring to say things like, “That isn’t true” in response to accusations.

While it’s tempting to simply marvel at the group dynamics like the debates are some spinoff of a trashy Reality TV Show, they did get around to talking about real issues.

former Governor (Maryland) Martin O’Malley
former Governor (Maryland) Martin O’Malley

The debate kicked off with three blatant (and expected) tie-ins to Martin Luther King, Jr., as they gave their opening statements and one-upped each other with their Civil-Righty-ness (new word). They then addressed their top priorities if elected, which provoked discussions of healthcare for all and solutions to rapid climate change. But the real guns came out when … well, the topic of guns came out.

Clinton made it sound as though Sanders supported Amtrak passengers packing guns in their handbags, while Sanders quickly resorted to pointing out his failing grade with the NRA — despite backing some pro-gun legislation. He explained his position on the necessity of background checks, but did not back down from his opinion that being from a rural state gave him a different perspective on the matter. O’Malley added that no self-respecting deer hunter needs to have access to many of the assault weapons available to American gun owners.

In essence, Clinton argued that she was consistent on the issue of gun control, Sanders argued that he was realistic and open to change, and O’Malley’s argued that he is consistently not Clinton or Sanders. And he hates guns.

In regards to threats, budgeting, and healthcare, all three candidates had moments of, “I agree with everything so-and-so said, but would like to add …” Call it a brilliant time-saver or a waste of an opportunity to insert a differentiating opinion. Maybe it’s both. In any case, Bernie Sanders pulled this move more than once, yet was the usual target of very practical questions regarding his Medicare-for-all program.

He’s been grilled numerous times on this very topic, notably in October when he appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher (who pushed for a full explanation of how he plans to pay for free healthcare and college), and repeatedly by news outlets like NBC and CNN. Even Trevor Noah, who is reaping a gold mine of material in his first year on The Daily Show, poked fun at any flawed economic math suggesting the wealthy could fully support such a system.

But the continual criticism doesn’t seem to faze Sanders, who points to the inequity of work to pay in the United States, and continues to assert that it is not only possible but necessary to resort to a complete upheaval of our current healthcare system. Here, Clinton probably got her strongest foothold, asserting that a repeal of Obamacare would simply instigate yet another long, ugly debate and slow progress.

It was the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” argument, combined with the “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” cliché.

While my opinion is virtually worthless, I will say that honesty and open-mindedness could do a lot of good for this country. When did we start expecting our future presidents to carry around one of those “Worst Case Scenario” handbooks? Haven’t you ever been pushed so hard for a complete plan that you began delving into conjecture (bullshit) simply to placate your opponent? It’s hard to say, “I don’t know all the facts yet,” or “I know it’s the right thing to do, even if I don’t know how we’ll do it.” But it’s honest.

Senator Bernie Sanders
Senator Bernie Sanders

Do Americans really want someone with a bullet-point agenda, or do we simply want someone with a general strategy and a set of unwavering guiding principles? You see, policies can change, and people can change, but their values tend to stick around and tear through all the thinly veiled muck we call “dirty stinkin’ politics” at some point or another. If someone has values like honesty, courage, humility, tenacity and fairness, their principles will likely illustrate this.

It’s impressive to have a strategy, and it’s reassuring to have a consistent record, but it’s no crime to be open to the emerging facts of a changing world. Actually, someone with a mind that can sort out cultural differences (say, the opinions of rural versus city-dwelling Americans on gun rights, for example) rather than resorting to strict partisan dogma is someone who might have a general plan (a wonky idea like fully government-funded, socialized healthcare) but consult advisors (say, cabinet members?) before cavalierly setting out on a mission to carry out their detailed (or uncompromising) plan. The fact that Sanders hasn’t been bought by Wall Street is also a plus, as he regularly — and rightly — pointed out.

It’s possible that we don’t need a candidate who never gives in on the issues; those issues may change and evidence may shift. We need a candidate who doesn’t give in to the powerful.

Power says: “Don’t question me.” Honesty says: “Let’s have a debate!” In a day and age when we really could just save ourselves the time and look on the candidates’ websites (thanks for the reminder, Hillary), perhaps the debates aren’t useful as televised dating games. Their only true value seems to be in reminding us who is Debate Worthy.

 All photos via YouTube, one of the broadcast partners in the debate.