The first night of the Democrats’ second round of presidential debates of the 2020 election cycle was billed as a matchup between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the two contenders did not disappoint on the CNN-hosted huddle as they faced The Bachelorette season finale on ABC.
In tone and temperament, the two pageants were similar tonight in their search for love and ratings — intentionally or not. Coming in hot and fiery from the start on their mutual policy of “Medicare for All” and railing against the rich and a “corrupt, rigged system,” to quote the Massachusetts senator, the two progressive parental figures went straight for the heart and soul of their party. It was a dash that might leave Joe Biden and Donald Trump as the real winners of tonight’s near-endless debate, in no small part thanks to ex-Today producer Jeff Zucker.
Emphasizing style over structure and in clear contrast to the micromanaged NBC debates of last month, the Zucker-run CNN was the certain loser, hosting a multi-ring Motor City asylum that saw the inmates take over from the beginning in what was a nearly three-hour mashup of stump speeches and knife fights.
Or, to put it another way, I heard Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Don Lemon were the moderators. I really did. Yet, I barely saw them and, with the infrequent and ineffectual “Senator, please abide by the rules” aside, they often just forgot they were guests on the endurance test that was the Bernie-and-Elizabeth version of West Side Story.
Similar to criticism leveled at the Oscars and other awards ceremonies year after year, tonight’s debate was an exercise in exhaustion, where the highlights were pretty meager pickings and the worst parts were plentiful. Joined by spiritualist Marianne Williamson, Rep. Tim Ryan, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, deep-pocketed ex-congressman John Delaney, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, ex-congressman Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and, in his first debate appearance, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the first among not-equals Sanders and Warren clearly were looking to the horizon in a race that will see many of their immediate rivals exit in the coming weeks.
As The Daily Show injected:
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) July 31, 2019
From the onstage introduction by Tapper, Bash and Lemon and the high-octane sizzle reel that put rubber to the road to the White House, the cable newser certainly aimed to put on “a professional show,” to quote some pre-debate props offered by Democratic National Committee boss Tom Perez.
In truth, in the home of Motown and coming off the tacky July 18 random pulling of names for who was slotted for what night, CNN slid on the side of splashy production values. About 90 minutes too long in all regards and lacking a breakout, it also was a run of show more akin to one of those awards ceremonies than the usual staid debates that existed before the night’s frequently targeted Trump brought his game-changing Celebrity Apprentice spotlight to the GOP race and the deeply divided nation in 2015.
Facing The Bachelorette on ABC and America’s Got Talent on NBC, tonight’s insular debate seems certain to come up far short from the 15.3 million that watched the first night of the first Democratic debates on June 26.
Essentially unmentioned, former Vice President and Dem frontrunner Biden will not be onstage until Wednesday to collect his own rose. The much-maligned Trump likely was salivating watching this group of 10 bidders for his job from the White House. Yes, in a field sure to narrow soon, Sanders and Warren were the heavyweights of a boisterous and pale brawl full of statements that wanted to be switchblades and looking for blood. Vino, as they say in A Clockwork Orange, that often came at the expense of Delaney, who stepped right in to become the moderate piñata in what surely were the dying hours of his struggling campaign.
Bernie just roasted Delaney…
— Cheo Hodari Coker (@cheo_coker) July 31, 2019
And Warren nails his coffin shut….clarity and fire.
— Cheo Hodari Coker (@cheo_coker) July 31, 2019
With the obvious distinction of Trump, few in the America of 2019 can be as acerbic and authoritative as the Vermont and Massachusetts senators and, even as they veered towards becoming SNL caricatures of themselves, make for well-intentioned television.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) July 31, 2019
Yet, in a CNN showcase that didn’t even see the first question asked until 25 minutes in, the bludgeoning of the Marylander Delaney — called a “neoliberal worthless centrist Democrat” on his spiked Wikipedia page — likely will be the only memory of tonight’s Detroit dust-up.
Or to put it another way again, I didn’t see anyone up there who looked like a president or with the underbelly capacity to take down the current president. Additionally, in what should be a true concern for advisers to Biden and the surging Sen. Kamala Harris on Wednesday, I certainly didn’t see a news network as CNN seemed to auditioning itself to become ESPN in its pursuit of organized conflict.
By the time CNN cut to its second ad break of the night around the 9 PM ET mark, it already was hard to recall any of what had preceded — like the short-lived engagement of Hannah Brown and Jed Wyatt on this season’s final installment of The Bachelorette.
Inching close to a drinking game for a shot of every time Sanders said or invoked Canada and its public health care system, the trio of glorified crossing guards posing as moderators were reduced to virtual non-entities by design, as seems likely, or by default. The Lord of the Flies results was that the low-polling and mostly unknown moderates fruitlessly aimed to show they were the only electable ones, and the strident progressives suited up to win an argument at the potential expense of an election.
Regardless, hitting all the high notes of health care, immigration, gun violence, global warming, the economy, the nuclear button and the notion of reparations, the Indy 500-paced debate didn’t offer up much from the candidates in terms of depth and policy beyond bumper-sticker slogans and Twitter crowd-pleasers.
Williamson’s social media viral chant of “Yada, yada, yada” perhaps caught both the best and the worst of a format that seemed designed by CNN to clean out the bathwater but sacrificed the baby too. A true testament to Trump’s instinctual channeling of pitchfork politics, to put it politely, the setup will prove a knee-capping to gaining the votes of the party faithful 187 days before the Iowa caucus.
Also, in an era under the shadow of Trump and on the 54h anniversary of LBJ signing the Medicaid and Medicare laws, it got just plain weird watching once-superstar O’Rourke fade off the national stage into redundancy on cable TV. That slow-motion end was only superseded by self-help author Williamson earning roars with warnings of a “dark psychic force” unleashed from the American soil.
Of course, sprinting toward an election year in an ideologically barricaded America, the attacks on the incumbent, who is blamed for much of that toxic force, started hard and early — even before the first round of contenders stepped onstage
“Presidents should make our lives better, not worse,” DNC chair Perez told the Motor City crowd in the majestic Fox Theatre of the man all the Democrats want to replace. “Presidents should inspire us, not exhaust us,” he added in full preacher mode on an empty stage, condemning Trump for his “hate-filled words” and “remarkably racist way” of singling out enemies such as Rep. IIhan Omar and Rep. Elijah Cummings to stir up his base.
Speed dating though the big challenges facing America and the candidates, as the DNC boss advocated in his pre-debate sermon, FDR-, JFK- or Barack Obama-level inspiration seemed in short supply tonight in format or formula. Absent in body, the primary input from bruised front-runner Biden was a simple press release just before tonight’s axis of mainly irrelevants kicked off. “On Wednesday, July 31, Joe Biden will travel to Detroit, Michigan for the second Democratic debate,” announced the ex-veep’s rarely understated campaign at 7:35 P ET.
Hey kids, maybe the grown-ups are coming — or maybe these suitors could get it all wrong like Jed Wyatt and CNN. See you tomorrow.