70-Year-Olds to the Rescue: The Third 2020 Democratic Debate

So another debate is in the books, and I’m not sure we’re a whole lot wiser for the three-hour marathon ABC News put us through as viewers. The good news is that at least it wasn’t as long as the seven-hour town hall on climate change that CNN hosted recently, a length more suitable to one of those 1920’s dancehall marathons than a town hall meeting highlighted by the presence of presidential candidates. Speaking of an earlier era, Joe Biden managed to slip in a reference to record-players but at least didn’t admit to showing up for the debate in his horse-and-buggy. Biden was definitely more caffeinated this time around, but I still get the sense that his campaign’s unofficial slogan is, “I won’t blow anything up.”

Who “won” the debate? Elizabeth Warren can always come across as measured and moderate so long as a bellowing Bernie Sanders occupies the stage. This time, Warren offered more details about her life and continues to look assured, informed, and utterly committed to reform. She’s about the only candidate on stage never subject to a bout of stage fright. Also doing well last night was Cory Booker, whose animated emoting—everything from big, genuine, generous smiles to indignation, surprise and more—makes him the candidate you might pay to watch as a stand-up comedian.

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The other candidates ranged from okay to odd. Pete Buttigieg increasingly strikes me as Radar O’Reilly from MASH: always prepared, but simply not the star of the show. Kamala Harris has descended into displays of “spontaneous” joy to overset her scowling. Amy Klobuchar continues to come across as a nervous wreck. Somebody should give the moderate Minnesotan a tranquilizer before she hits the stage next time. At the far other end of the stage, Julian Castro looked ready to play Biden’s assassin: full of menacing, haughty glances at the front-runner. The also-rans are many. Everybody on stage appeared to like Beto O’Rourke, but nobody is likely to pick him as their VP. O’Rourke still comes across as a meek version of Robert F. Kennedy: youth and conviction, but no bare knuckles.

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The night’s big loser might have been Andrew Yang. His give-away proposal during the opening statements was downright weird, eliciting tittering laughter from his colleagues on stage.  But that was just the start of his failure to capture the moment last night.

When Yang was asked why he was the best candidate to step up to the role of being Commander in Chief, he might have pivoted to the fact that as an entrepreneur he could argue that, ultimately, the state of the nation’s economy is what enables paying our large defense department budgets. Without money, nobody’s safe from China, Russia or losing the American dream. All in all, in the end, it was the three septuagenarians—Biden, Warren and Sanders—occupying center stage and promising to deliver us from Trump, a 70-year-old-plus leader himself. Of them, Warren seems the most in command of the details; Sanders the best at shouting, ever more hoarsely: “The house is on fire.” Meanwhile, Biden smiles and Trump continues to burn everything he touches.

Booker Finds His Mojo, and Warren Isn’t as Scorching as Sanders

Heading into this week’s two nights of Democratic presidential debates, the big picture looked like this. Based on national polls, fundraising efforts, and media coverage, the Democratic field consisted of five actually viable campaigns (Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg), and a bunch of mere candidacies. Among the rest of the contenders, O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar were generally considered to be the Minor Three candidates with the best chance of hitching a ride with the Big Five, real candidates. How everyone performed on stage—non-verbally, emotionally—over the last two nights has scrambled that picture.

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The Winners: Nobody benefited more than Cory Booker. Passionate, full of looks of happiness, surprise, indignation, and occasional sadness, Booker really brought it to Wednesday night’s debate. The odds are he’s now found his mojo. Nobody was more animated or emotionally versatile than Booker. The other two biggest winners were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from Tuesday night’s debate. But by comparison, Sanders was utterly emotionally monolithic: anger, combined with more anger and just a touch of disgust. If somebody did a remark of the 1976 satirical movie Network, surely the casting director would have to look no further in deciding who to cast as the raving anchorman Howard Beale: the man on TV screaming to millions “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Alongside Sanders, Warren was also repetitively angry, but not as intensely so. She projected courage and conviction, too, but not as if she would rather burn down The White House than move into it.

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The Losers: Occasionally stumbling for his words, and at other moments standing with his head bowed and lips firmly, even grimly, pressed together, Joseph Biden came across as more like a bobber at the end of a fishing line than our next President. Biden rode the waves, but not much more. For Kamala Harris, Wednesday night proved to be a minor disaster. The empathetic sadness she wove into her take-down of Biden in the previous round of debates turned into glum determination this time around. Maybe she didn’t expect to be pummeled by the likes of Tulsi Gabbard and Michael Bennet. But Harris looked like a woozy boxer at times, somebody taking it on the chin. Among the Minor Three candidates, Beta O’Rourke talked way too fast to emote much, failing to make a strong impression. In contrast, Amy Klobuchar made a definite impression: scared. As with the first round of debates, nobody exuded anxiety more than Klobuchar did; she appeared to be the mirror inverse of Warren’s pluck.

Everybody Else: Gabbard was close to phenomenal: unlike most of the 20 candidates on stage, she didn’t rush her words or fail to convey confidence and conviction. If there’s any justice in the world, she deserves to turn the Minor Three into the Major Minor Two: her and Booker. As to Pete Buttigieg, standing next to Sanders he tried to amp up his anger but got lost in the force field of Sanders’ greater, more radioactive anger. Julian Castro? Adept, but did you notice his tendency to arch his head back in a look of condescension not far off from Kirsten Gillibrand’s smirking. Marianne Williamson? She had a higher gear, emotionally and otherwise; she’ll be (likely) missed in round three. Andrew Yang’s flat affect undermined him, but not as badly as Bennet’s weak voice and tepid emoting, Jay Inslee’s ugly mouth grimaces, or John Delaney doing his best, wide-eyed and falsely smiling impression of what a prairie gopher or chipmunk might look like if running for President.

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This week’s pair of debates provided a study in contrasts. On Tuesday, Sanders and Warren were ironically in the center of the stage, physically and emotionally, dominating the debate and making the “far left” seem downright central. Try as they might, verbally shooting at them from the wings, the party’s moderates lost out. Wednesday night’s debate was totally different. At center stage was the party’s main moderate, Biden, alongside center-left Harris. In this case, the center did not hold (up) well. Two other more or less moderate candidates, Booker and Gabbard, stole Wednesday evening and deserve to live to see another night on stage.

Biden Semi-Apologizes for Invading Women’s Personal Space

This past Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted out a video. It’s in response to, by now, four women expressing various degrees of discomfort regarding his proclivity for touching, nuzzling and otherwise invading women’s personal space—typically, at or near the podium during public events. It’s a brief, 2-and-a-half-minute video in which Biden tries to informally lay to rest concerns that in the era of the #MeToo movement he’s a dinosaur, out-of-touch about his being inappropriately too much in touch with various female members of the Democratic party in particular.

How well did Biden do non-verbally in delivering his message?

First, there’s no doubt he’s uneasy and no longer trying to glide by the matter as he essentially did in suggesting the handling of Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991 was somehow a matter beyond his control as chair of the U.S. Senate’s judiciary committee. On camera, Bid’s eyebrows rise and the eyebrows knit together: all reliable signs of fear. This look ironically occurs as he admits to having made these four women (and probably others) “uncomfortable.” Now, he’s the one who’s uncomfortable.

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That brings us to point #2. What exactly is Biden most uncomfortable about? Is it for what he’s done in the past? Or is it about his political future instead? The video leaves little doubt that Biden plans to run for the presidency. “I will be more mindful” going forward, he says, adding a smile to what was previously pretty much pure fear.

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In this video, Biden lives up to his reputation for being a retail politician who truly believes that “life is about connecting.” That’s point #3. There are two primary approach emotions: happiness (to hug) and anger (to hit). In delivering his semi-apology, Biden exhibits both frequently. This trait also goes beyond his facial expressions to body language in general. He incongruously says “I hug people” while showing a fist. Later, his hands are outstretched in a more kindly manner.

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Any rival of Biden’s for the Democratic party nomination in 2020 will want to take special note of one moment especially. When Biden says “the idea that I can’t adjust” is “unthinkable,” I think he’s signaling first and foremost to the party faithful that he won’t be elbowed aside over this matter. Knitted eyebrows (fear), tightened lips (anger), and a smile (happiness) are all evident at that moment. But so is a smirk (contempt): Biden is signaling—point #4—that he disrespects anybody disrespecting him after all his years of public service.

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Point #5 must be, of course, the question of whether Biden comes across as credible in this video. If the video is successful (and it has already received over 160,000 likes online), then it will be for adding in the third approach emotion: sadness (a longing to hug or be hugged). That emotion is about feeling forlorn, disappointed, abandoned, unsure of yourself. Biden claims that’s why he’s invaded these women’s personal space: on behalf of delivering the message that “you can do this,” run for office, be empowered.

In simplest terms in regards to others, sadness expressed denotes often a capacity for empathy for others. From the death of his first wife and a daughter in a traffic accident to the death from brain cancer of his son Beau, Biden has had his share of tragedy. So when he says “knowing what I’ve been through” in this video, that his eyes momentarily shut conveys a sadness that’s been earned the hard way.

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The interesting part for Biden now is that for him the prospect of running and perhaps losing, for a third time, the Democratic party nomination becomes one more possible brush with disaster. He’s way beyond being old enough to retire. He doesn’t have to throw his hat into the ring. Donald Trump shows sadness, too, but it’s mostly related to wanting more acclaim and rarely about America or others in his life. Some candidates smile. Lots of candidates do anger. If Biden is going to prevail, it’s because he might be unique in public life right now for his ability to incorporate both happiness and sadness, without making it seem like he’s merely vacillating, pointlessly, between those two emotions.

Mr. Sunshine, Julian Castro, Declares Presidential Bid

Memo to Joe Biden, should you decide to enter the race. When it comes to big, flashing, electric smiles, you’ve now got some competition. Meet Julian Castro: formerly the mayor of San Antonio as well as a Housing and Urban Development secretary in Barack Obama’s administration. Is Castro really the second coming of Biden, however? I don’t think so. Easy laughter isn’t part of the package. And many of Castro’s smiles—no matter how joyous—contain a whiff of some additional emotion, too.

For starters, there are only two emotions where Castro stands out. He shows above average amounts of happiness (especially the strongest two flavors of it—sparkling-eyed joy, and minus that look the pleasure signaled by large grins). And the same is true of contempt. What does that combination of happiness and contempt suggest? In a word, it would be confidence. As for where the smirks emerge, look for the tension that appears along the left corner of Castro’s mouth in the photo on the left here, and next at how his upper lip raises and curls a bit in the photo to its right.

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Now, joyful smirking is already a little odd.  Tom Brady and Vladimir Putin both smirk when they smile, but rarely while offering a big, glowing smile. Happiness is about, in effect, hugging others and embracing opportunity. Contempt is laced with scorn and dismissal.  Contempt could be thought of as the equivalent of strong-arming somebody trying to tackle you in a football game.

That fairly uneasy, even unnatural combination plays out in this next smile of Castro’s. The happiness is more subdued here, but again the upper lip flares with contempt (and disgust). Is there some chance that another side of Castro exists beyond being Mr. Sunshine? Could he be vaguely imperial, a little aloof, with some modicum of darkness creeping in after all?

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I think that could be true, but we’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out on the campaign trail. For now, Castro is presenting himself as the Hispanic Obama, a quick learner who represents the next generation in an ever more multicultural society. Education is his big issue, something that helped propel him to Stanford and Harvard. And as for rising fast, well, his mother ran (unsuccessfully) for a seat on San Antonio’s City Council when she was 23, and he got there by the age of 26. If elected to the White House, Castro would become our country’s third youngest president ever.

Youth is at the heart of Castro’s sunshine appeal. His grandmother, orphaned by the Mexican Revolution, crossed the border at a young age. Relatives in San Antonio took in her and a sister. Castro has called his recently released autobiography An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream.  Noting how details like his grandmother’s diabetes, depression and even a suicide attempt get passed over as quickly as his mother’s alcoholism and his parents’ separation, a reviewer in The New York Times characterized An Unlikely Journey as offering “little in the way of introspection.”

What exactly is Castro waking up from? Can he beat Donald Trump, as promised, by not making the error of trying to “out-gutter” him? Who knows for sure.

Castro’s expansive, frequent smijuliale limits evidence of sadness, anger and fear to levels well below what’s customary in the famous people I’ve analyzed over the years. So time will have to tell which version voters perceive. Might whatever is in the shadows of Castro’s personality fortify him, helping him demonstrate empathy and emotional depth? Or might everything except “sunshine” (happiness) get treated instead as merely a nuisance to be kept out of view (even from himself) as much as humanly possible?