The United States has never before witnessed a presidential primary debate during an ongoing impeachment process, and while Bernie Sanders insisted that all Democrats can “walk and chew gum at the same time,” tonight’s debate — perhaps overshadowed by the impeachment hearings — was an oddly flat showcase for the candidates, where almost every candidate seemed content to tread water and play it safe.
MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow seemed really eager to get the candidates talking about impeachment, which was not in the interest of the candidates. One way or another, impeachment will be over and done with long before Election Day. The candidates wanted to talk about what they could do after January 20, 2021.
Of the ten candidates on that stage tonight, at least seven should be feeling, and should have demonstrated, a greater sense of urgency. This is the November debate. There will be a December and January debate, and then Iowans hold their caucuses February 1. Right now, Pete Buttigieg is leading in Iowa, Elizabeth Warren is leading in New Hampshire, and Joe Biden is leading in Nevada, in South Carolina, and nationally. Time is on the side of those leading candidates. Everybody else should have been making an argument against one of them, but attacks on any of them were few and far between. Judging from the anodyne tone and relatively few direct confrontations between candidates, everyone must be pretty happy with where they are right now. Congratulations, Biden, Warren and Buttigieg. You walked onto that stage in good shape, and you’re walking off in good shape.
One hour and forty-five minutes in, Cory Booker finally got a good shot in at Biden, observing that Biden still hesitated to legalize marijuana, and joked, “I thought you were high when you said it.” But Biden just said he thought it should be decriminalized, and simply ignored — or forgot? — what he had said a few days earlier.
Biden’s biggest foe in the debate might have been himself. Biden said he was endorsed by “the only African-American woman ever elected to the Senate,” thinking of Carol Moseley Braun. Kamala Harris laughed out loud and pointed out he was forgetting someone.
The night brought yet another moment that belongs next to “Chuck, stand up!” in the Biden Gaffe Hall of Fame: “No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger other than in self-defense, and that rarely ever occurs. And so we have to just change the culture, period, and keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it.” Will any of these gaffes hurt Biden? None of the other ones has before.
Maybe we’ve seen so few candidates breaking out from the pack in these debates because it’s hard to shine in a 90-second increment once every 20 minutes or so. Perhaps it’s almost impossible to gain traction when there are ten candidates on a stage. But a lot of these candidates use their infrequent questions as opportunities to do bite-sized versions of their stump speeches, or roll out their old arguments again. Every month, Bernie Sanders reminds us he voted against the Iraq War. Every month, Harris shoehorns her “Kamala Harris, for the people” slogan into some answer. Every month, Booker invokes dignity and offers some story from the streets of Newark. Maybe it seems new to casual voters who are just tuning in now. If you’ve watched all of these debates, these candidates are repetitive, predictable, and boring.
On policy, the candidates remain in fantasyland, convinced that on Inauguration Day, they inherit a magic wand. Tom Steyer thinks he’s going to enact term limits for Congress. Joe Biden claims he’s going to turn Saudi Arabia into a pariah state. Bernie Sanders says he will get Iran and Saudi Arabia into the same room “and say we are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflict.” (He has turned into Larry David.) We’re left yearning for the pragmatic realism of building a big beautiful wall on our southern border and making Mexico pay for it.
Ten candidates qualified for the debate stage, but clearly the MSNBC anchors wanted to talk to only seven. Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, and Tulsi Gabbard got significantly less time to talk. Yang is currently seventh nationally; he didn’t get a question for the first half-hour.
Gabbard got one question in the first hour. That question did generate impressive sparks with Harris, as the California senator finally got payback for the time Gabbard dissected Harris’ record as a prosecutor months ago. Harris called Gabbard a “full-time critic” of the Obama administration on Fox News, which is an exaggeration, but Gabbard does stand out in the field for objecting to Obama’s management of the VA, intervention in Libya, and stance regarding Bashir al-Assad. Judging from the reaction in the debate hall and Twitter, a lot of Democrats now loathe Gabbard, seeing her as a de facto Republican.