Early on in tonight’s fifth Democratic debate, Senator Bernie Sanders proclaimed that for all the incumbent’s apparent sins, “we cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump, because if we are we’re going to lose the election.”
The sage from Vermont and his nine fellow contenders onstage in Atlanta may have wanted to “walk and chew bubble gum at the same time” in addressing issues like healthcare, inequity, taxes, family leave, criminal justice, migrant detention, trade wars, prosecuting oil companies, reproductive rights and more in their bid for the White House. Yet, while tackling white supremacy & flying the #MeToo flag took this debate briefly in a rare new direction, the stark fact is the MSNBC and Washington Post hosted two-hour conclave was all about the former Celebrity Apprentice host – and his now Netflix producing predecessor, for better or worse.
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The latter because last week Barak Obama threw a grenade into the eat the rich and Medicare For All stances of Sanders, one-time front runner Senator Elizabeth Warren and others and buffed up his ex-sidekick and occasionally brain freezing Joe Biden without mentioning the former Vice President’s name. “The average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the system and remake it,” said the 44th POTUS publicly next to Stacey Abrams.
The man who won the 2008 and 2012 elections obviously wasn’t there tonight, but the almost Georgia governor was in the audience along with the iconic Rep. John Lewis.
Conversely, Trump has been the harsh focus of the ire of Democrats before, but unlike the often unwieldy four previous debates, tonight comes as the besieged 45th POTUS finds himself only the fourth American Chief Executive to face impeachment. In fact, with Trump’s own Ambassador to the E.U. and others offering damning testimony earlier Wednesday to the House Intelligence Committee on big bucks aid to Ukraine being tied to scooping up dirt on Biden and his family, the fourth day of hearings almost ran right up against tonight’s shindig from Tyler Perry Studios’ Oprah Winfrey stage.
It was a potentially historic moment, the poignancy of which this round robin affair and its electoral participants mostly fumbled or tried to run away from as quickly as they could get out their talking points. Where they should have been withering and relentless on Trump, the Democrats were mainly united in being wavering and often redundant in an America plagued by ever growing divisions and a scorching process before Congress.
Seventy-five days before the first in the nation Iowa caucuses vote, a squabbling Sanders, Warren, Biden were joined at the podium by competing powerpointers and soundbite seeking knights Senator Corey Booker, the much-derided Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Kamala Harris, businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer and poll leading South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
There were some stand out lines (Sen Booker’s line about Biden being “high” when the ex-VP asserted that marijuana should not be legal nailed the hipster and late-night vote, for sure) and a few moments. Still, there was never a sense that this combo of seasoned and relative newbies had the breakout muscle or cunning to put Trump down.
Mostly unstained by hecklers, tonight certainly was not the “spirited and excellent debate” that Rachel Maddow kindly termed it in closing – at least not onstage. Facing the candidates, the otherwise razor-sharp moderating quartet of Maddow, fellow MSNBers Andrea Mitchell, and Kristen Welker and Ashley Parker of the Jeff Bezos-owned newspaper killed it. Outside of this fifth debate, the journalists put many of this year’s previous Democratic questioners to shame.
The first fully female moderating panel had some history of its own to make for sure. Yet, the four pros were in step like they had been doing this together for years with seamless and inspired form.
Well paced and well produced television aside, they and we quite frankly deserved better candidates out of a country of 330 million people. Due to the relentless but exhausted focus grouped lines, the officially shortest debate of this ongoing limited series offered little to an increasingly established narrative – which, at this point, is simply missing the point and Nancy Pelosi’s end game.
Yes, in a pivot to clearly counter ground level poll numbers, California’s Harris sought to provoke the “punked” Trump and bring the fight with criticisms of his foreign policy and “very fragile ego.” Casting herself as the rebuilder of the “Obama coalition” and building off her friction with Gabbard back in the summer, Harris also delivered a stern teardown of the Hawaii Congresswoman for frequent appearances on Fox News, and for buddying up to Steve Bannon and Trump. Building off their festering friction back in the summer, as my colleague Ted Johnson pointed out tonight, this could be Harris’s way of showing that she can take on the extreme – which see did online too:
What we need right now is a Democratic nominee who is willing to stand up to Trump, who will unify the country, and who will win. I believe I’m that candidate. #DemDebate
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 21, 2019
Perhaps, but in a political arena dominated by an audience of one, the only punch that counts is a TKO of Trump and once again, no one in tonight’s debate brought that – even when Buttigieg castigated fellow veteran and Hilary Clinton foil Gabbard over her 2017 sitdown with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
In fact, having had a good few months to eye up these candidates and with the absent and unmentioned ex-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick now in the race too, the strategic and heavyweight Speaker looked more and more like the winner the Dems need to bloody up Trump.
The hundreds in attendance at the debate seemed to think so too – which the contenders should pay attention to amidst their continuing restating of their resumes and pint-sized skirmishes.
One year before the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, the biggest roar of the night went to Amy Klobuchar when the Minnesota Senator noted to an increasingly low wattage Biden that “if you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”
After a multi-debate apprenticeship and less than a year to go before America votes, the moderators brought their A-game. Noticeably, no one onstage tonight, female or male, looked like they truly had their eye on the prize to win the referendum on Donald Trump that the election has shaped up to be.
The candidates have one last chance in 2019 to prove their mettle with the sixth debate in L.A. next month, or not.
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