Rarely have you seen a Democratic presidential-primary debate where the interests of the candidates and the interests of the moderators were so at odds. CNN’s questioners wanted specific answers in a one-minute window. Most of the candidates wanted to pivot to their preferred messages — illegal immigrants are human beings too, I care about your health and insurance companies don’t, Trump is just the worst, etc. The words uttered most frequently tonight were a loud, sudden, interrupting “thank you, Senator!” from the moderators.
With 60-second time limits on answers, the responses were brief and not all that illuminating. Most veteran debaters either deliberately or reflexively insert generic phrases such as “we need a real solution” or “this is about who we are as Americans” or “we can’t get distracted, we need to focus on the American people” or some such blather. CNN (and much of the audience) wanted to see lively and spirited disagreement, and few candidates had any time to really get their arguments rolling.
CNN clearly also wanted the candidates to contrast with each other, and a handful of previously not-so-noticed, more moderate candidates came to play: Representative John Delaney, Montana governor Steve Bullock, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Representative Tim Ryan. The bad news for these guys is that they amount to about 5 percent combined right now, and it’s hard to see any one of them breaking out, just based upon tonight.
A lot of us are laughing about Marianne Williamson, but there’s some of that same dynamic that drove Trump to the nomination in 2016. She’s a figure who’s famous for being connected to the entertainment world, who isn’t interested in policy details, and who emotes in a way that generates raucous applause from the audience. She’s the political candidate for people who aren’t that into politics. Ben Smith of BuzzFeed mentioned that a Marianne Williamson staffer told him, “when she visits the networks, reporters and producers sneer at her, but the makeup artists always cry when they meet her.”
And her lack of interest in policy means she’s always talking about bigger, vaguer, more emotionally resonant themes in her own kooky way: “This is part of the dark underbelly of American society, the rainfall, the bigotry, and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight, if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.” A chunk of the American people is going to find talk about “dark psychic force” as crystal-waving nonsense. Another chunk of the American people is going to hear Williamson and respond, “finally, a candidate is addressing the real problem.”
Sometimes her criticisms of her rivals on stage were nonsensical — “I look at some of you and I almost wonder why you’re Democrats, you almost think something is wrong with using the instruments of government to help people” — but they generated applause anyway, which should have those other nine candidates on stage freaking out right now.
It’s the second debate and already Bernie Sanders is exhausting. Why does he feel the need to shout every single sentence? Every answer, on every topic, he sounded like he wasn’t sure if his microphone was working. (Ryan had an okay delivery of a good line when he said to Sanders, “you don’t have to shout.”) Sanders is the equivalent of getting e-mails from your great-uncle who FORGETS THAT HE HAD THE CAPS LOCK KEY DOWN. Also, I get the feeling a lot of Democratic officials have gotten sick and tired of Bernie’s holier-than-thou “I’m the only one who is willing to be bold and stand up for the people” schtick, particularly when he wasn’t formally a Democrat for most of his career.
On paper, Elizabeth Warren won, in the sense that she got through the night without any major gaffes. A lot of liberals will love her for her quip, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running to the president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” Of course, she’s celebrating one of the big problems in our political system — no presidential candidate wants to acknowledge the limits of the power of the office, the presence of the opposition party, judicial review, the inherent difficulties of enacting sweeping changes through legislation, or the limit of government policy to solve problems in society. One of the reasons Americans are so cynical is that they’ve seen plenty of politicians come and go, with almost every one of them promising the moon and very few living up to the hype.
Warren shamelessly insisted that the government could pay for quality health care for every American — and illegal immigrants, too! — just by raising taxes on billionaires and big corporations. Warren made clear tonight that she’s not going to let a little thing like fiscal reality get in between her and the nomination.
Pete Buttigieg had another night that was just fine. I still get the McKinsey-consultant-presentation vibe from him, but he knew what he wanted to say in every 60-second opportunity, while a bunch of the other candidates tried to think on their feet. He was polished, smooth, succinct. But I don’t know if he did much to break out of his status as a boutique candidate — beloved by the big donors, unloved by African Americans so far.
Beto O’Rourke is turning into an M. Night Shamalayan character: He never knew his campaign was dead the whole time.
Tonight was another night where you could easily forget Amy Klobuchar was on stage. Back when Klobuchar’s campaign was in the nascent stage, people wondered how “Minnesota nice” would play on a national debate stage. We can now declare it boring, predictable, and forgettable.
When Steve Bullock didn’t qualify for the first debate, the temptation to write him off was strong. But he brought a likable, folksy, commonsense tone, emphasizing that Democrats didn’t have to choose between “wish-list economics” and “sacrificing our values.” He spent a chunk of the evening trying to tell the rest of the field that in his home state of Montana, they sound like lunatics. He and John Hickenlooper felt like the kind of candidates who would have thrived in the Democratic party of the 1990s, and maybe the 2000s.
If this was the final prime-time debate appearance for candidates like Ryan and Hickenlooper, they got over their first-debate jitters and turned in solid performances. John Delaney probably isn’t going to be around on that stage much longer, and after tonight that feels a little disappointing. Collectively, the three — maybe four if you throw in Bullock — tried to remind the bigger names on stage that America didn’t have endless money, that decriminalizing illegal immigration would bring more people over the border, and that the math behind these bold plans didn’t add up. I said that tonight Delaney felt like an increasingly exasperated designated driver trying to persuade the crowd of drunks in his car that no, they should not hang out the windows because it would be cool.
One other flaw of this two-night format: The first-night candidates will get only 21 hours to enjoy any post-debate surge, because starting at 8 p.m. tomorrow, the attention is on Joe Biden and the rest.