MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Reason’s Jesse Walker on What Tonight’s Debate Really Needs

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Today in Instant Politics — in which a range of writers, pundits, politicians, and thinkers discuss the 2012 race for Daily Intel — MSNBC host Chris Hayes and Reason senior editor Jesse Walker talk about what they'd like to hear at tonight's presidential debate and whether third-party candidates should share the stage with Romney and Obama.

Jesse: Want to start this thing? I trust you've prepared lots of zingers.

Chris: Oh yes. I've been sequestered in an undisclosed location, honing them, so be ready for showstoppers. Wait. Can we talk for a second about why Romney's people would even tell reporters that? I didn't quite get the strategy there. Like: BE ON THE LOOK OUT FOR PREFABRICATED JOKES.

Jesse: It could be a desperate attempt to lower expectations.

Chris: I think all attempts to lower expectations are, almost by definition, desperate. Jay Smooth had a very funny line this week that the lead-up to the debate was like a rap battle in reverse, with each contestant trying to outdo the other in putting themselves down.

Jesse: Well, let's explore our own low expectations. What do you want, but not expect, the moderators to ask about tonight?

Chris: I like this game! Okay: war on drugs (I'd love for them to have to weigh-in on a Colorado ballot initiative legalizing pot); Dodd-Frank implementation (specifically, recent court rulings around derivatives); principal reductions for homeowners; and the new report about DHS fusion centers being a colossal waste of money. You?

(I'm a shameless panderer/seeker of consensus, so that list I just gave skews a bit toward our common interests.)

Jesse: I would really, really love for them to ask about that fusion center report. Beyond that: Mass-incarceration. A debate about the deficit that actually seriously engages the arguments between Keynesians and non-Keynesians. I'd like to see Obama grilled on his broken promises regarding transparency. I'd like to see Romney grilled on how he can campaign as a budget hawk while simultaneously campaigning against cuts to Medicare and the military. We might get some version of that last query, actually.

Chris: Yeah, I strongly hope we do get something like that. My sense is that, given where elite CW public discourse is right now, we'll get a lot of budget stuff, taxes, "entitlement reform," limiting deductions, sequester, etc. ...

Very curious to see if energy comes up and whether Romney has to defend his running away from the scientific consensus on climate.

Jesse: I have a mad dream that someday a candidate will use the phrase energy independence and a moderator or another candidate or a streaker in the audience will scream "THAT'S A FANTASY. SAY SOMETHING ELSE."

Chris: Oh, what I would give ... Yeah, the energy independence canard is pretty infuriating. I find it especially frustrating now because what began as a way to coat a climate message in the appealing packaging of national self-reliance has now been completely detached from any climate concern. I mean, if we got really good at liquefying coal (something Hitler perfected in WWII, since Germany had essentially no oil), we could be much more "independent" in a way, but, you know, we'd destroy the planet.

Jesse: It goes way back before climate was an issue, though. To the era when OPEC was a mighty colossus striding across the earth, if not earlier. It's just a perennial and ridiculous cliché.

Chris: Yes. Good point.

Jesse: A meta question: Has anyone in the press ever been good at debate forecasts? The Atlantic always trots out James Fallows to do a big debate preview, but I lost faith in his powers as a prognosticator when he talked up Al Gore's debating prowess in 2000. Now, I'm terrible at debate predictions — in 1992, I predicted that James Stockdale would crush all comers — but I remembered that Gore had somehow managed to lose a debate to Dan Quayle and that he didn't beat Perot so much as watch Perot turn on all his asshole circuits and defeat himself.

Chris: I'll go even more meta! I’m not even sure what are the metrics and rubrics we're supposed to use to evaluate debate performance so that we can even pronounce who won. As a pundit (ugh, did I just write that?), my least favorite undertaking is projecting my own sense of how voters feel about what they see, hear. I don't really trust myself to embody the median voter!

Jesse: I wish pundits would stop trying to do that. Unless there's a Rick Perry–type flameout, it's just an exercise in second-guessing.

Chris: It's partly unavoidable. I mean, we all have some sense of politics. But it's very, very shaky ground. I actually think some people do this well. Some people have an ear for politics the way others do for melody or music. I just don't necessarily see myself as being particularly gifted in that regard. Although, certain moments shouldn't be overthought. ("You're likable enough." "I'll bet you $10,000.")

Jesse: I think I'm alone in liking the "You're likable enough" line.

Chris: Ha! Actually, I vaguely recall at the time thinking it was kind of funny and almost grudgingly respectful, but I may have subsequently been colored by those infernal pundits, because when I just rewatched, I definitely cringed.

Jesse: So, do you wish there were third-party candidates onstage with Romney and Obama tonight? Gary Johnson could crowd-surf in.

Chris: I go back and forth on this. I love the idea of massively widening the areas of debate by including minor-party candidates. But this raises the question of: What cut off do you use? And also, there's a case to be made that multicandidate debates are less focused and more diffuse. Sometimes in the GOP primary debates, people would end up being bailed out by an ally swooping in to change the subject or make a joke (or offer the name of a federal agency you might want to cut), and that lets the air out and maybe steers you away from usefully confrontational/clarifying moments.

Jesse: I don't think a five-way debate with Johnson, Goode, and Stein would be unwieldy.

Chris: Oh lord, Virgil Goode. I would favor at least one for sure. It would also be fascinating from a purely experimental perspective in terms of what it did to polling. Maybe you'd see voters flock to third-party candidates in the subsequent polls, or maybe they'd run screaming headlong away from them and it would confirm why these folks are not major-party candidates.

Jesse: Depends on the candidate. But I think adding Perot was good for the debates in 1992. Nader would have been a good addition in 2000. Johnson would be good this year, with or without Goode and Stein.

Chris: I don't think I've ever properly gotten my head around the Ross Perot phenomenon. What the hell was that about? As for Johnson's inclusion. I wonder, though, whether the reason that the issues he's strongest on (civil liberties, war on drugs) don't get much play is because there's just not that much mass voter passion/interest in them.

Obviously, it's a chicken-and-egg issue here, but I always wonder how much the "natural" passions of voters are reflected by the two parties and political conversation and how much they are shaped by them. Including minor-party candidates would be a great way to sussing this out.

Jesse: On the broader topic of third parties: You liked Rebecca Solnit's Mother Jones article about the left and lesser evils. What about it impressed you?

Chris: I thought she did a good job of capturing a certain, specific kind of condemnatory self-righteousness I've encountered that I find deflating and toxic and wearying. I also think that political action is something you do in parallel along a bunch of different tracks. You make calculations all the time about costs, benefits, principles. And I liked her line "bad things are bad, and that doesn't mean good things aren't good" or something like that. Meaning, a president can both raid pot dispensaries and kill innocents via drone in Pakistan AND get 15 million poor people access to health care through Medicaid.

Jesse: Well, I can pick out at least a few things that any individual president has done that I like, and as a libertarian, I'm legally obliged to despise all of them. But the article felt really self-righteous to me, at least as much as the people she's attacking. Reading her, you'd think the folks on the left who refuse to vote for Obama, or folks on the right who refuse to vote for Romney, or libertarians who refuse to vote for whoever our natural candidate is supposed to be, have never thought about these complexities.

Chris: I'm sure some or most of them have. I just think there's real, genuine, passionate disagreement on this, so tempers will run hot, hence the firestorm kicked off by Conor's article about why he's not voting for Obama.

Jesse: Have you ever voted third party? Not counting fusion votes.

Chris: I have.

Jesse: Who?

Chris: I cast my first vote for president for Ralph Nader in N.Y., in 2000. Had I been in a swing state, I would have voted for Gore.

Jesse: I almost always vote third party. I have voted for the Libertarian Party's nominee in every presidential election of my lifetime, save one. And more often than not, I think they've put up a terrible candidate. You have to hold your nose pretty tight to vote for a guy like Andre Marrou. But I did it anyway, telling myself I was registering a generic protest vote for liberty rather than a specific protest vote for the standard-bearer. So you could make the case that I'm a lesser-evil voter, too.

Chris: That's a very interesting way of putting it. I actually think the ideologies here matter. I think if you're a real committed libertarian like yourself, there's a far stronger case to be made for not voting for either of the two-party candidates and instead trying to build a third party that represents your views. For you, the ledger for someone like Obama is different than for me. New EPA fuel efficiency standards and ACA and more funding for community health centers all count as pluses for me and not for you.

I hasten to add, Conor's politics are probably more like yours than like mine, so I'm not particularly surprised or scandalized by his stated intent not to vote for Obama.

Jesse: I was amazed by some of the insults that followed his article and some similar ones. In the last week or so, I've heard that not voting is "elitist" and that voting for third-party candidates is "narcissistic." It seems to me that elites are constantly attacking ordinary people for not bothering to vote, and as for narcissism ... well, I suppose you could say it's narcissistic to feel that your individual vote among millions really matters, but I see much more of that sentiment from Romney and Obama supporters than from the people willing to vote for someone they know will lose.

Chris: I'm much more sympathetic to those critiques, again, from a left perspective. First, lemme say there's a distinction between "not voting," which on an individual level is unlikely to make a huge difference, and advocating others don't vote/withdrawing from electoral politics. It's more the latter that bothers me. And the reason is that, again, from a left perspective and even just a human one, electoral politics is the machinery we have for self-governance, as broken as it may be, and its outcomes matter tremendously. There's something similar to "not voting" to the lefty who ostentatiously won't buy, say, an iPhone but does buy an Android phone probably made in the same miserable conditions. There's a question: What is the point here; is it fundamentally expressive or it ends-focused?

Jesse: One thing I've learned from the left is that social movements are ultimately more important than electoral politics. Obviously that isn't an either/or thing. But in the end I'm more interested in building a movement that can pressure politicians who don't agree with me than installing politicians who do agree with me.

Chris: I agree about emphasis absolutely. You should watch the incredible documentary How to Survive a Plague, about ACT UP. What's amazing about their strategy is how nonpartisan and non-electoral they were, particularly in the beginning. If you stood in their way, they came after you, and they could care less what party you were. Eventually though, you do see them develop electoral strategies in tandem with direct action.

Jesse: I'll look for the film. Way back in the Bush I era, when I was active against the first Gulf War, I found that I got along really well with the people who came over from ACT UP. We spoke the same strategic language, whatever the differences in our broader political views.

Chris: Actually, ACT UP was a very libertarian movement in certain ways, in so much as their biggest target was bureaucracy and red tape, particularly in their middle years.

Jesse: I like the fact that we've managed to work both ACT UP and Perot into this.

Chris: Agreed! Which brings me to perhaps what might be a good closing thought. Going back to this question of third-parties and What Voters Want. Do you think libertarianism has failed to gain larger traction in American politics because it's just not that popular an ideology? (Which doesn't, of course, mean it's wrong. I mean: Atheism isn't very popular, even though I think it's correct.)

Jesse: Well, I don't have any illusions about my ideas being popular. My ideal presidential candidate would combine the economics of Barry Goldwater with the social and foreign policies of George McGovern. That isn't a recipe for political popularity.

Chris: Ha! I love that

Jesse: That said, I try to keep that social-movement perspective. For me, useful libertarian activism is a matter of defending and extending the zones of free action. And that can have an issue-by-issue appeal to people who aren't ideologues of any kind.

Chris: You, my friend, are the thin edge of the wedge, the camel's nose under the tent, etc. Well, I'll be covering the debate live tonight, which means I can't exercise my freedom to drink copiously while watching but hope you can.

Jesse: Thanks for the reminder — I need to buy some beer if I'm going to get through this thing. Especially if I'm going to play the Reason drinking game.