We learned a little from Tuesday night’s 10-candidate Democratic debate. Although they’re battling over many of the same voters and small donors, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren decided to team up rather than fight each other, and powerfully showed that the dynamism in the field, in terms not only of ideas but passion, is coming from the left. The so-called moderate candidates—former congressman John Delaney, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Ohio Representative Tim Ryan—were given plenty of time by the moderators to tear down Warren’s and Sanders’s plans and make a case for centrism. They came supplied with canned lines about “wish-list economics” (Bullock) and warned against “fairy-tale” promises (Delaney), but botched every opportunity to make a larger case about why they should be president.
Warren summed up the entire night with a zinger at Delaney, during one of the many times he droned on interminably about why the left’s plans are too ambitious. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” Warren said to cheers. I expected to see Sanders high-five her and run to the locker room—game over!—but we still had at least another hour. If it were a boxing match, the ref would have called it then.
I hate to diminish political debates with sports analogies, but the hoped-for contest of ideas was no contest. CNN did its best to introduce drama into the proceedings and certainly encouraged the centrists to beat up on the progressives—Warren and Sanders—who also happen to be polling the highest of everybody on stage. We know what they were doing: using those centrists as a stand-in for former vice president Joe Biden, who wasn’t there. It’s hard not to conclude, after the moderators gave the centrists so much help, that they’re all in low single digits for a reason: They aren’t making plausible cases for their candidacies.
We were also told by various reporters’ “sources” before the debate to prepare for some real drama: former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke was going to go after South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the upstart who replaced the Texan as young white male flavor of the month. But the two never really locked horns. Like O’Rourke, Buttigieg has seen some of his early media attention decline, and with it, his standing in the polls. Although they’re just behind the top four—Warren, Sanders, California Senator Kamala Harris, and Biden, who’s in the lead—on Tuesday night’s stage they seemed like distant also-rans. O’Rourke can’t lose his lofty cadence even in a debate format; he takes for granted that he’s inspiring his audience, when he’s mostly talking past us.
Buttigieg was almost as clumsy in emphasizing his youth as Representative Eric (“It’s time to pass the torch”) Swalwell was in the last debate, referring to things that happened when he was “in high school” multiple times, and ultimately coming off as the precocious kid who’s delightful on first impression but who turns much less so with prolonged exposure. (Swalwell, by the way, was the first to drop out of the race, after his lackluster debate performance; Buttigieg has enough money to remind us how young he is for another few rounds.)
I’d be remiss not to mention New Age author Marianne Williamson, who, at the very least, was never boring—and that counted for a lot in this two hours and 45 minutes of mostly contrived debate. I can’t quarrel with her warning that “the dark psychic force of collectivized hatred” which Trump is channeling actually predates him. I just don’t think she’s the one to fight it.
And so we wait for Night Two. At least there will be genuine contenders with genuine differences clashing Wednesday night. We might see real, not contrived drama, between Harris, Biden, and Senator Cory Booker over race and criminal justice. Two candidates who’ve underperformed expectations—Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro—could still have the breakout moment these debates were designed for, which none of the low-polling candidates managed last night.
But as I survey the two nights’ rosters, it’s hard not to wish Tuesday’s debate had featured Harris as the person challenging the details of Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal, while making the case for her own (a 10-year phase-in rather than four; a role for private insurance à la Medicare Advantage.) That would be—and down the road, will be—a real debate. Or Biden telling Harris and Sanders that both of their Medicare for All proposals are malarkey, explaining why strengthening “Obamacare”—he’ll have to get Obama in there; he always does!—is the right way to go. Such a clash might also force Warren to sharpen her differences with Sanders. That’s the debate we need.
I sympathize with the plight of the Democratic National Committee, facing 25 or so candidates this year. In the run-up to 2016, leaders were accused of “clearing the field” for Hillary Clinton (it wasn’t that overt; she just scared away most challengers with her connections and her fundraising). Now we have a contest—and constant complaints about why the DNC is letting so many people with so little chance of winning compete in the debates.
I think they did the right thing for these two debates, but I’m hoping things change in September. They will, some—the DNC has hiked its standards, requiring that candidates reach 2 percent in a certain number of trusted polls and attract at least 130,000 separate donors. So far, at least seven have qualified, but they have until August 28, so more are likely to. Since two nights are scheduled, it’s hard to imagine ABC, the debate sponsor, dropping to one night (but let’s check the ratings this time around). Maybe it’s time to consider grouping candidates in tiers, putting those polling strongest together on the same night. I didn’t favor that for the first two rounds, but now I do.
An unintended consequence of this formula—randomly distributing the qualifying candidates over two nights—is that the night with the strongest candidates dominates media coverage. Last month and this month too, that was the second debate. It’s just chance, but it means Warren and Sanders’s joint victory will likely be forgotten as we all analyze what went on in Wednesday’s clash. (Also by chance, last night was all white; on Wednesday, five of 10 candidates are people of color.)
We’ve still got six months until the Iowa caucuses, so realistically, there’s plenty of time for a clash of the Democratic titans, even many clashes. On the other hand, life is too short—and the nation too imperiled—to have to endure more nights of contrived controversy ginned up by hopeless candidates or desperate debate moderators.