Assigning Letter Grades to Debate Performances Using Mostly Arbitrary Standards

Undergoing this exercise in futility now for a couple reasons, notably being on break and how irrelevant the debate will be this time tomorrow. The reason I so dislike these types of articles is that, although they seem to be a useful tools for getting a  quick summary of how everyone did if you didn’t watch or want some expert’s thoughts on what you just you just watched, the whole grading system is really dumb. It fails for you choice of two reasons. First, using the standard most teachers use, the letter grades correspond to percentages, which really is a foolishly quantitative way to frame a discussion. If someone gets an A, did they get a 93-97%? By what standard? Truthfulness? Then no one, no offense to any candidate, should be scoring above a B-. The other option is doing things comparatively (aka arbitrarily), which most pundits seem to prefer. In this case, it’s just the writer taking their opinion and giving it a semblance of legitimacy by feigning objectivity. Considering that’s precisely what I do here week in and week out, that’s what I’ll go for.

All in all, this was a solid showing, especially compared to the shitshows that have been the past two Republican debates. In an amazing contrast, discussion focused for the most part on policy, with both climate change and income inequality being mentioned, rather than either ignored or dismissed out of hand. No attempts to out-stupid anyone else either, which was refreshing, especially given the extent to which Ben Carson has been doing that with himself over the past couple weeks. Three out of the five candidates looked more responsible and capable than anyone on the Republican debate stage save Rubio. And it’s been another turn in a surprisingly competitive Democratic race. So here goes.

 

Hillary “Literally Hunting for the Chinese” Clinton: A-/B+

Positives: Hillary had a very good debate, especially given how her campaign had been going in the week leading up to it. I said last week that the best she could hope for is stopping her slide in the polls, and she may have done just that. She reaffirmed her status as frontrunner, consistently came across as presidential and very prepared, but also showed glimpses of that humanity which all sentient beings are supposed to share. She was grilled the hardest and responded the best to said grilling, for the most part. Went specific where she had to, stayed vague when she didn’t, and was pretty consistently on her toes. Specifically, she demonstrated her knowledge of foreign policy, and had a very strong answer (Where were you when Obama nominated me to State, bitch) to prodding on her Iraq War vote by the foreign policy legend that is Lincoln Chafee. Her banking reform plan was more specific-ish, she was the first to mention the ridiculous Planned Parenthood debacle, and all in all she made a good case for herself as a pragmatic progressive, reminding a Democratic electorate in doubt why she has such high favorability ratings within the party.

Negatives: First of all, this isn’t even Hillary Clinton’s fault, but she didn’t win the debate by the large margins everyone seems to believe she did. In post-debate polls that went online, Bernie actually won by overwhelming (75-10) margins across the board, and in focus groups which CNN&Co. immediately tried to downplay. And yet, checking the news this morning, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hillary mopped the floor with the snapped spines of the shattered opponents she left in her wake. I know online polls are biased towards Bernie, but come on. This is particularly egregious, and evidence for why Bernie rails against the corporate media along with the corporate everything else. And she wasn’t flawless. Her answer on TPP was particularly weak, and evidence for the flip-flopping reputation she has. Her repeated claims to electability on the grounds of being the first female president felt cheap and honestly unnecessary, given how qualified she is. Her answers on foreign policy and the NSA were somewhat typically hawkish, and she mentioned the Republicans every other sentence, it seemed, which got a little old but is in keeping with the larger strategy of the DNC this cycle, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. Despite her best efforts, many of her lines came across as forced and rehearsed, though that’s what weeks of intensive debate prep will do to you. In the end, she showed why she’s been a force to reckon with in public life for the past 25 years.

 

Bernie “This Might not be Great Politics” Sanders: B/B-

Positives: There are two ways to read Bernie’s debate performance. As an introduction to the large majority of the public who doesn’t know who he is, this was a very strong showing. Despite some early stumbles, Bernie got his message across loud and clear, and provided a strong case for why so many people like him so very much. He had two extremely genuine moments: the already-old “damn emails” line, and his straight “yes, absolutely” response to whether he would shut down NSA domestic surveillance programs. Both were unscripted, spoken directly from deeply-held convictions, and were typically Bernie moments in their straightforward honesty. When asked about the email line later, he explained it simply as “the right thing to do.” Between that and some other standout moments, notably saying “I was the 1 vote” in response to Chafee’s absolution of his PATRIOT Act vote on the grounds that he voted with the majority in a 99-1 situation (Bernie actually wasn’t, he was one of 66 against 357 in the House, but the point still stands), he definitely made a favorable first impression among people who didn’t know him before, as evidenced by his aforementioned strong performance among focus groups and online polls.

Negatives: This debate, however, wasn’t all sunshine and roses. As typically Bernie as his strengths may have been, his weaknesses were even more so. He looked and sounded a little rough, like Bernie do, which, while it wasn’t an issue for me, still contrasted with Clinton. He looked positively out of his element on early questions on foreign policy and gun control, two acknowledged weaknesses, especially when confronted with harsh questions from Coop and poking from his opponents (sidenote: it seemed very odd, though perfectly politically logical, that both O’Malley and Clinton went out of their way to attack Bernie over minor disagreements on both of these issues when Jim Webb, just one podium over, actually disagreed with them on a fundamental level). His stuttering response to a question on Russia was a particularly weak point. Also, the goddamn socialism/capitalism question. Everyone saw this one coming from a mile away, and yet the answer still felt rough and improvised. First of all, given that he doesn’t believe in public ownership of the means of production, Bernie is better categorized as a social democrat (which is, coincidentally, what the Scandinavian countries he cites so often are). “Social democrat” sounds a lot less threatening than “democratic socialist” to an American public who still very much cares about these terms. We’re not in Vermont anymore. And second, he was handed a great opportunity with the question of whether or not he’s a capitalist. Here was his shot to hit it out of the park and explain to all the people who have no clue where he stands that he’s really not a scary guy, that he believes in private property, in entrepreneurship, in free enterprise. This might seem like they should be givens, but considering the lingering fear of communism and socialism that exists in this country, you can’t take anything for granted, and explaining that he does believe in private ownership would have gone a long way to making Bernie seem like a legitimate candidate who’s not that far outside the mainstream, which is an important realization to make. By dodging the question like he did, he unnecessarily made himself seem more radical than he is, and may have turned a lot of potential voters off. In short, if you didn’t know Bernie, this was a good introduction, but if you did, it wasn’t a reassuring performance.

 

Martin “Good Job Guys” O’Malley: C+

Positives: Martin O’Malley won the vice-presidential debate. Even though some might have expected him to come out swinging after his feisty campaign-trail jabs at both Clinton and Sanders (guilty as charged), the Maryland man was mild in his speech. While he was the hardest on Bernie for gun control, and kept bringing the issue up, that’s about it, besides pushing for reinstating Glass-Steagall. None of his previous barbs about Clinton’s position-shifting or proximity to Wall Street came up this time around, leading many to believe that this is a pretty big favor he’s trading for a pretty big reward in the form of at least a Cabinet-level position in a potential Hillary administration. He was professional, assured, and touted his record pretty well. Unoffensive, and made no major gaffes. Gun control is his strongest issue, and he played that to his advantage throughout.

Negatives: As inoffensive as O’Malley might have been, he was equally unexciting. In a primary season thus far dominated by political outsiders and non-politician figures, he was the most typical-looking politician on the stage. While I can maybe appreciate what he’s doing with the possible VP snag, this young Frank Underwood, in appearance at least, ensured that his name and performance will be shortly forgotten by simply not saying much that was interesting during the debate. He squirmed under a question about his record, which seems to merit questioning by what Marylanders seem to say about it. I’m no economics expert, but I’m pretty sure he used “shadow-banking” wrong after taking it from a Hillary response and using it to argue the exact opposite of Hillary’s argument. He had his breakout chance, and he seemed to pretty voluntarily give it up. If no one from here on out actually criticizes Clinton as a candidate, some of which (funding, having top bank personnel running her campaign, following a political compass that doubles as a wind gauge) seems to be worth criticizing, it’ll largely be down to what O’Malley did this debate, and, for all we know, that’s according to plan.

 

Jim “I Hope I Can Get that Kind of Time” Webb: D+

Positives: Seemed perfectly content with the debate format and the speaking time awarded to each candidate.

Negatives: He spent so much time complaining about his speaking time that he actually significantly cut into his own time (which was more than a certain former Senator from Rhode Island). Also, once he got into actual policies, they didn’t make any sense, at least not for this stage. While people were tearing into Bernie for voting against the Brady bill, Webb actually has an A rating from the NRA. While his candidacy doesn’t make much sense to begin with, it makes even less sense the more he talks.

 

Lincoln “Block of Granite” Chafee: F-? Can I do that?

Positives: In the words of the vastly underrated British comedy In the Loop: “No, you’re right, I’m being unfair. I should be thanking you for not throwing up. Well done, you’re a star. You didn’t wet yourself, did you? You’re in the right city. You didn’t say anything overtly racist. You didn’t pull your c*ck out and start plucking it and shouting ‘Willy Banjo’. No, I’m being really unfair. You got so much right… Thanks, you’re a legend.” Also, he didn’t mention the metric system, which is a plus by his standards.

Negatives: Like the mutant offspring of Mitch McConnell’s turtle birth mother and Fox News anchor Steve Doocy, Chafee dismounted from his actual father’s coattails and somehow wound up on the Democratic debate stage in the process. Much like Donald Trump, nothing that came out of his mouth made any sense. Unlike Donald Trump, it wasn’t even amusing in a scary way, it was just sad and cringey. For the total of 9 or so minutes for which he did speak, he managed to sound less qualified with every new statement. His evening can be summed up in two separate events: when he tried to go after Hillary’s character and wound up getting only a firm “no” in response, and when he tried to explain away a politically inconvenient Glass-Steagall vote by saying that he was under emotional distress, was new to the job, and that Coop was being rough in his questioning. So to be clear, the Chafe tried going for the lowest of the low-hanging fruit in questioning Hillary Clinton’s character, and still screwed it up to the point where she could firmly deny to comment and appear to be justified rather than dodging the issue. And then, we have a man who claims to be running for the most powerful office in the free world, where emotional distress abound and rapid-fire important decisions are the norm, who says that he fluffed an important vote because he had just gotten there and wasn’t ready, claiming that he deserves a do-over. Miraculously, upon hearing this, ISIS, climate change, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Wall Street, the Republican Party, big pharma, big oil, and the goddamned Nazis all got together, agreeing to give the newest president a 100-day waiting period to find their bearings and get adjusted to life in the Oval Office, rather than being rushed into conflicts so soon. Meanwhile, reports out from 538 suggest that the one guy who had been voting for Chafee in the polls this whole time has been revealed to be none other than Lincoln Chafee himself, and that even he had to abandon ship after the former governor’s ludicrous display.

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