If there are two things that we learned tonight from the fourth Democratic debate of this primary season, it is that Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the front-runner now and these double-digit candidates and multi-hour yak fests make the Academy Awards look like the Indianapolis 500.
The former may be a true upturning of conventional wisdom, but the latter is becoming mind-numbingly irrelevant.
Yes, a thankful Sen. Bernie Sanders may be “feeling great” in his return to the campaign trail after suffering a heart attack two weeks ago today, but most of the rest of the contenders right now look like they are slow walking themselves to potential cabinet gigs in a Warren or Joe Biden cabinet.
By the last half hour of the three-hour affair Tuesday night, the debate co-hosted by CNN and the New York Times seemed to exhaust the participants, the moderators and the relatively quiet audience – which is likely not how FDR or JFK would have played it. By the time it got to the imaginary friends question launching off the recent in-the-news relationship between Ellen DeGeneres and the once toxically unpopular George W. Bush, late-night hosts must have been screaming at their writers for not thinking of that for their monologues.
Even small-screen addict Donald Trump must have zoned out and decided tonight to center his Twitter ire on House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff instead of those out for his job.
In case you didn’t know, appearing tonight at Ohio’s Otterbein University were, in alphabetical order, ex-VP Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, IN, ex-HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, ex-congressman and Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, Vermont’s Sanders, longtime impeachment-advocating businessman Tom Steyer, Warren, and former tech executive Andrew Yang.
Following an anti-climactic Capitol Hill press conference from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and another fiery prologue by DNC boss Tom Perez, Warren came onstage to the largest applause of the 12 contenders. In a tightly run show on the Jeff Zucker-run outlet, only Mayor Pete garnered a similar roar, which may tell you a lot about how enthusiastic Democrats are about their own candidates.
Familiar domestic policy for Democrats like healthcare, taxing the rich, damning Amazon and Facebook, and reproductive rights were on the agenda from CNN moderators Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and the NYT’s National Editor Marc Lacey, as was a dollop of foreign policy. Still, with a new face like the soon-forgotten Steyer and the absence of hecklers for once, fundamentally this debate was like every other debate the Democrats have had this year. The wannabes tried to punch up and Warren, Sanders, and Biden held the top spots – which to quote Johnny Rotten was just boring.
It was also a truly kamikaze outcome in fast-moving times and a failure of the format, once again.
On a stage stuffed with more candidates that any previous debate, the rules gave each participant 75 seconds to answer questions, 45 seconds for their responses and rebuttals and a swift 15 seconds for clarification – which is not a debate by any measure. It’s a slug match of pitches looking for cracks to shine some policy or personality sunshine through. Or to paraphrase Sanders, it was “the same old same old.”
The fact is America and the world right now are not the same old same old.
Since the last time the contenders to replace Trump gathered, on September 24, the incumbent has been tangled in an impeachment inquiry after leaning on the Ukrainian leadership to dig up dirt on Biden and his family.
Add to the pedal to the speed metal of American politics in 2019, the blast radius from Trump’s heavy handedness has permeated almost every aspect of the Executive Branch, Warren has taken the lead in the polls and in fundraising. Also, 78-year old Sanders had that health scare two week ago, the ex-Celebrity Apprentice host dropped the Kurds into the jaws of Erdogan’s Turkey and upended the Middle East, and a trade deal with China may or may not be happening.
Even with Tuesday’s debate dragging out, the volcanic nature of those occurrences received relatively short shrift. It is not hyperbole to say that America is in the cultural equivalent of Stranger Things’ Upside Down. Yet, tonight’s grouping skipped along like it was just another laugh-track filled sitcom, if you know what I mean?
Here are a couple of suggestions: Three hours should be one so America will truly tune in and make what candidates say have urgency. Secondly, the leashes need to be removed so people who want to be the Commander-in-Chief can show if they are truly leaders or if they are just looking for a promotion.
Yes, peppered with promos for the new season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan and a pharmacy full of medical ads, many railing against Democrats’ various healthcare plans, tonight’s occasionally awkward event had a nice moment or two like when Sanders jokingly asked Biden, “Are you suggesting I’m Vladimir Putin?” The two old warriors laughed and hugged it out, but for the most part this was tightly scripted knife fighting with what have become blunt blades.
Even the jousting competition that served as the takeaway from previous loyal opposition shindigs didn’t really see anyone land a blow that mattered this time. Although he put his foot in his mouth telling Warren contemptuously that she did “a good job doing your job” at the Obama era’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Biden stayed out of trouble on his son Hunter’s big board membership in Ukraine while Dad was VP. In her own lane, Warren never really had to do any math for her many plans despite everyone trying to whip out their calculators.
Or as one veteran Presidential debate watcher noted:
It’s a moment he knew was coming. Did Biden’s answer to the question about his son strike you as defensive or strong?
— Dan Rather (@DanRather) October 16, 2019
Additionally, Booker reminded us he was a vegan, Harris reminded us she was a prosecutor and a lot of the gang took politically naïve turns reminding us that Warren’s clearly popular desire to enact Medicare for all and hobble Wall Street won’t work … well, that didn’t work.
In that vein, my Deadline colleague Ted Johnson notes that O’Rourke had perhaps the sharpest criticism of Warren, calling her policies “punitive.” Warren said that she is “really shocked by the idea that someone thinks I’m punitive.” I’m wondering if she’s suggesting that this is a form of sexism – like saying she sounds scolding because she is a woman.
A big favorite with both Silicon Valley and Hollywood, California’s junior senator sought to cut her colleague Warren on “holding big tech accountable” and backing Twitter shutting down Trump’s much-used feed. It was a noble lunge for a breakout by Harris but shut down fairly fast by Warren, who recently pulled a fast one on Facebook and its policy of letting ads full of clear untruths go online by posting an ad of her own, nakedly full of untruths.
It’s rare for a leading candidate to have a breakout moment, but Warren got very close tonight in denying the single-digit-polling Harris the spotlight.
Without naming Harris or Biden directly, Warren rhetorically proclaimed “if people are taking money from the big tech executives, if we are going to talk seriously about breaking up big drug companies, we should ask if people are financing their campaigns by taking money from big drug executives.” In full flight, Warren added: “If we are going to talk about Wall Street and having serious regulations over Wall Street, we should ask if people are funding their campaigns by taking money from those executives.”
That was kind of it for Harris tonight, who is beyond waning in this race.
The next time the Democrats debate, on November 20 at an event hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post, the pack will be sliced down. Losing one or two faint-hopers won’t make the outcome any more unwieldy and increasingly unwatchable – aka, more of the same old same old, which is when Trump swarmed in 2016 and could again next year at this low-voltage rate.
As for the rest of tonight, well, Warren is adding on to those 70,000 selfies that she says may be the new measure of democracy. Hopefully the pics will be better than that canned line:
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 16, 2019
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