Was it a fever dream, or did we just spend nonrefundable hours of our brief lives watching 20 people fight for airtime to proclaim how cool they were?
Let me remove “we” from that sentence. Maybe you didn’t watch these early Democratic debates, in which case, good for you. I respect your priorities.
So there were two separate debates, but we can treat them as a mélange because it’s all the same, errr, bouillabaisse. Let’s start with the big fish, then move to the clams.
The Stars: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) were the most presidential candidates onstage. Unlike (cough) some people, Warren and Harris didn’t seem like they were wearing their dads’ suits or waving their hands furiously in the back of the classroom. They both came across as strong, consistent, deliberate and authentic, each in very different ways.
Warren stands alone no matter what room she’s in. She’s often the smartest, often the fiercest, and she always has a plan. She talks to or about the other Democratic candidates, and Trump for that matter, relatively rarely, reserving the bulk of her ire for the corporate greed she perceives as the root of much of Americans’ suffering.
Harris is tenacious as well, but she engages more with the other candidates and their ideas. As such, Harris’ message is less focused; she makes memorable contributions to the broader conversation, while Warren leads her own. I suspect we’ll be talking about each of them for quite a while, even if the mainstream press has been working overtime to frame the American presidency as Joe Biden’s well-deserved prize for sticking around. Yeah, about that guy ….
Former Vice President Biden flopped when he ran in 1988, flopped when he ran in 2008, and is somehow an even worse candidate now. I said it six months ago and become more convinced each passing day.
In the debates, Biden worked to sell the idea that he is the next incarnation of Barack Obama. One problem, of course, is that Barack Obama is very much alive and Biden is not Barack Obama, neither in style nor substance. Another is that this is not Barack Obama’s time. Obama first ran in the teeth of the financial crisis and before Trump, which is to say in a different world. His supporters’ hope became tempered by their circumstances and, over time, we observed some of the former president’s failings up close. Obama has a reserve of magic still, but there’s not enough left for someone else to hook a sprig to. Hillary Clinton tried; Obama campaigned for her everywhere in 2016.
Another reminder that Biden is not Obama, regardless of how much he might insist, was delivered when Harris highlighted the former vice president’s past opposition to busing to integrate schools. "I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden said. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education." It was a god-awful response, particularly given that race is one of Biden’s many bad issues; among other things, he wrote the 1994 crime bill, which has contributed to the over-policing and over-incarceration of black Americans.
At the debate’s end, Biden attacked Trump for being “the only president in our history who has equated racists and white supremacists with ordinary and decent people,” which is precisely what Biden himself was accused of just last week when he boasted about working hand-in-glove with segregationists. The country doesn’t have time to watch Biden stumble along a path to self-awareness, let alone insight; he’s 76 years old, he doesn’t have it, he’s not going to.
Thankfully, a refreshing if misfit candidate disrupted the toxic energy Biden was emitting. “My first call [as president would be] to the prime minister of New Zealand, who said that her goal is to make New Zealand the place where it's the best place in the world for a child to grow up,” spiritual #influencer Marianne Williamson declared. “And I would tell her, girlfriend, you are so wrong, because the United States of America is going to be the best place in the world for a child to grow up.” I’ll have some of whatever Williamson is having — and maybe we all should. She’s definitely not the right choice for president. But if she’s selling a limited-edition crystal, I’ll get on the list.
The Watch-This-Spaces: Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro brought social issues and human rights to the fore in a way that was both bold and collected. Castro was particularly authoritative on immigration reform, which will be a key general election issue. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg hit strong points throughout Thursday evening; that guy has promise, even after the far left learned he existed and then immediately got furious that he wasn’t who they would have hand-painted him to be. I’d be gobsmacked if Buttigieg became president, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him picked up as someone’s VP.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) seemed to conflate strain with seriousness — perhaps he was trying to distance himself from the young-guy-taking-selfies-with-constituents reputation he garnered years ago — and I could read the intensity of his effort, in a way that made me feel drained rather than motivated. I’m not prepared to count Booker out, though. He’s championing interesting legislation and taking thoughtful positions on key issues like reproductive rights and racial justice. Faults? Sure. Certainly not as many as, and I apologize for repeating this word, Biden.
The Interestings: Props to Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) for running hard on gun control and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee for running hard on securing a human future on a planet headed for irreversible ecological collapse. We don’t talk about these issues nearly enough because they’re considered divisive and boring, respectively — which is so far beyond absurd. Swalwell and Inslee forced the field to address these priorities more than it otherwise would have. That’s what made Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) such a crucial candidate in the 2016 primary; his concepts got through even when he didn’t. But this debate was not Bernie’s best. He’s the only candidate in the 2020 field who got far in 2016, and it’s hard to animate audiences around big ideas they heard from the same person just three years ago.
The Whys: The only note I wrote on entrepreneur Andrew Yang as I watched Thursday’s debate read: “Babe, you didn’t talk up.” To register as an outsider you have to say something when millions of people are watching. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was unable to make the event but sent a bot to recite a script straight to camera in her place. The bot even pointed to itself when it said “me.” Touching moment. I for one don’t know how Gillibrand’s campaign has spent piles of cash on communications consulting and emerged with no central message other than “I’m a woman,” which was decidedly fresher in 2016 when there was only one woman standing onstage.
A couple of months ago, a comedian tweeted that “Beto O'Rourke is the first person to run for president to find himself … [as] if running for president were a study abroad program.” I think about that a lot. And so I must admit I squealed with schadenfreude when the moderators Wednesday hit the former Texas representative with an actually hard question about the United States’ responsibility to protect people in other countries who are victims of crimes against humanity. Beto bumbled something warm and meaningless about building international friendships and living our values. Speaking of confused, I’m genuinely not convinced Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) understood this was a conversation about being president; he kept talking about weird things like how to lobby Trump, which ostensibly Ryan could be doing in Congress, where he’s served for 17 years.
The Alsos: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper were there, though Hickenlooper had a dispiriting time getting into the building. “Are you here to pick up press credentials?” a security guard asked. “I’m a candidate,” Hickenlooper responded. Life is nothing if not humbling.