Start with the obvious: this was a much better debate than the previous two. First, because a bunch of also-rans didn’t qualify, so we didn’t get to hear John Delaney talk for half an hour about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for or watch Seth Moulton deny in real time that he’s not as cool or popular as his handlers tell him he is. Second, the moderators took a page from Chuck Todd’s book and burned it and did not insert themselves into the debate, save to ask clearly-researched, candidate-specific questions (except the first one: George Stephanopoulos’ invitation to Joe Biden to throw some ‘bows about health care and doing his damnedest to get the Republicans a sound-bite saying middle-class taxes would go up). Third, they actually touched a little on things like foreign policy and trade, which a President has a whole hell of a lot more to do with than health care, which is properly the concern of Congress, God help us all.
If you thought those three hours went by fast, you were right, because it was only two hours and forty-five minutes. That said, it was a good deal more substantive and, well, debate-like than these things often are.
So, how’d everyone do?
I’ll start with Elizabeth Warren, because she’s my favorite and, despite the current poll ratings, the one to beat, in my mind. She did, as ever she does, a good job staying above the fray and sticking to making a positive case for what she wants to do (clean up corruption and save democracy and the world!) and tell the very good story about why she wants to do it. She had some standout moments, though they don’t seem to have been picked up on, being more substantive than flashy. I’m talking about her line about not tasking the military to solve problems that can’t be solved militarily and her suggestion that we leverage the power of access to US markets to make other countries up their game when it comes to environmental and labor practices. Like so much else in her campaign, it’s both sensible and radical, and one of the reasons I support her for President.
Bernie Sanders was Bernie Sanders, albeit hoarser than usual. He’s a visionary, and we all owe him a great debt for mainstreaming a worldview and policy platform sorely lacking in our nation’s politics. But at this point he’s halfway to animatronic: when it’s his turn to speak, he comes alive and does the Bernie schtick credibly; when it’s not, he seems to power down and not pay much attention to what’s going on around him. To be honest, he and Joe Biden (about whom more anon) sounded like a couple of old friends hollering at each other at the rest home commissary. But it was sweet how he leaned over to comfort his old buddy a few times when the slings and arrows got thick.
Joe Biden… well, let’s say I’m a bit baffled by everyone who thinks he did well. I mean, if you’re grading on a curve, sure. But we don’t — or at least shouldn’t — be grading Presidential candidates on a curve. George W. Bush should have taught us that, if nothing else. I mean, he took Stephanopoulos’ bait to swing at Warren and Sanders with the first question, which was not smart, because it’s not typically a good idea to go negative and throw elbows when you’re ahead. But worse, much worse, than that, was the obvious cognitive decline over the course of the night, with answers that became less coherent and focused on the question he’d been asked as the night went on. The pivot to Venezuela twenty minutes after the discussion moved on was bad enough. By the time we’d got to the end, and he was asked about resilience in the face of a setback, he was in full-on word salad mode. I despair of the choice, in 2020, between two Boomers in the grip of cognitive decline shouting at each other, and though I’d vote Biden over Trump in a heartbeat if that’s the choice, I’ll be looking closely at his VP pick and counting the days til the 25th Amendment’s invoked.
Kamala Harris had a decent night. She came across as more human than previous, and I thought her humor and subtle code-switching both played well, though the pundits have largely panned them. I thought she made a good strategic choice in holding her fire on Biden (who’ll sink himself) and aiming her rhetoric at Trump. I think her answer about deciding to make change from the inside was about the best she was going to do, but it’s still not that great, though I appreciate that she admitted she could have done more as CA AG.
Beto O’Rourke had a great night. Ever since El Paso, he’s found some moral clarity and does not give a fuck who knows it. Good for him, and I’m glad he’s got there. It’s certainly given him some much-needed gravitas. But I don’t think it moves the needle in his favor much, and I do hope he reconsiders a Senate run against Cornyn, who’s both less popular in Texas than Cruz and the number two guy in the Republican Senate caucus. That’d be a hell of a scalp to hang on your wall, and it’s a nomination he could actually win and do some good with.
Julian Castro also had a memorable night, though I’m still trying to figure out his end-game. I’ve been mostly convinced he’s actually running for VP, and still am (VP candidates are usually attack dogs on the trail). Either that, or he’s realized his campaign is going nowhere, so he decided to do us all a solid and bleed Joe Biden out some on national TV. That the punditariat finds his actions so objectionable will, in my opinion, only make him more popular, at least among progressives, and I think if he succeeds in torpedoing Biden we will all owe him a debt of gratitude, which, given the state of our world and our politics, will likely not be repaid. But who knows?
Pete Buttigieg continues to baffle me. I’m still not sure why he’s running, nor what he stands for. He’s like a Boomer’s notion of the ideal Millennial, and I have a lot of trouble trusting him (I also wonder if he isn’t really running for VP, since he’s probably got as far as he’s going to get, politically, in his home state of Indiana). That said, he had a couple good lines, and his coming out story was genuinely moving and, let’s not forget, historic as fuck. So good for him on that.
Corey Booker turned in a fine performance, as ever he does. I think he’d be great to grab a beer with, as the old saying goes, and I do appreciate his perspective and geniality. But aside from ambition, I’m also not sure why he’s in the race, nor what he brings to the table someone else doesn’t. I feel like, in an alternate timeline where Al Gore won in 2000, Corey Booker would be an excellent candidate for President. But we are in a much darker timeline, and he just doesn’t come across as a wartime consigliere, if you know what I mean.
Amy Klobuchar did a decent enough job setting herself up as the centrist alternative should Joe Biden flame out. Given her goals, I think she did as well as she was going to. The problem for me is her whole campaign rationale is a non-starter. Her thing is she’s a centrist from the Midwest and, as such, she can, somehow, unify the country and, idk, bring the Reagan Democrats back into the fold. The problem is we can’t unify the country. Obama tried and tried and tried again, til way past the point he should have learned better, and got his ass handed to him over and over and over again. Because the Republicans and the ‘christian’ white supremacists and parasite oligarchs they represent are never gonna unify with any Democrat, because they are traitors who care only about themselves and their own advancement. Why else did they let the Russians ratfuck our election in 2016?
And Andrew Yang? I want to like him, because I’m a big believer in a Universal Basic Income, which seems to me both moral and pragmatic. But he’s supposed to be a single-issue candidate focused on that. Aside from his possibly illegal stunt at the beginning of the debate with the UBI sweepstakes his campaign is running, he was largely silent on the topic. Like he’s trying to run a real candidacy. Which is fine, I guess, but he’s out of his league and, let’s face it, I don’t want him in the White House.
All that said, overall I thought it was a good, substantive debate if you like that sort of thing, which I do. Will it move any numbers? Hard to say. In a just world, we’d all come to our senses about Joe Biden (which would make things much more interesting than they currently are), but the punditariat seems pretty invested in propping him up, so we’ll see how they judge between the narrative they’re so attached to and the evidence of their eyes and ears. Myself, I can’t wait til the herd thins even more. But I doubt that’ll happen before Iowa.