“Houston, we have a problem,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar tonight at the third Democratic debate in the Texas metropolis. Yes, Houston and America, we do. Now reduced to 10 candidates, the contenders to Donald Trump’s throne are already starting to feel like a rerun.
Granted, ABC shifted away slightly from the WWE approach that NBC and CNN took in the previous debates earlier this summer and July. But, if there were any winners from tonight, it was a robust showing by Univision anchor Jorge Ramos and Texan Beto O’Rourke The former asked the most piercing questions of any moderator in any Democratic debate so far, and the latter was widely praised by his rivals for his actions in the aftermath of the horrible mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso last month.
In what was still an overcrowded stage that led to shallow results, the Latino network journalist and the Spanish-speaking, failed 2016 Lone Star State Senate hopeful may have been the winners tonight. But the often-eloquent and passionate O’Rourke won’t be the candidate who takes on the former Celebrity Apprentice host next year.
Whether that candidate will be one of the top three polling currently – Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders – or even someone else, what is certain is that Thursday’s three-hour Demcella makes the 2020 election seem very, very far away. Stationed in a Texas Southern University auditorium full of the converted, the first onstage meet-up between the ex-VP and the former special advisor to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau did not result in the fireworks that fans, foes and network executives desired.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 12, 2019
Things went a bit off the rails near the end, when a spattering of nearly inaudible protestors interrupted Biden and the proceedings for a minute or so with chants about DACA. “We’re going to clear the protesters,” Stephanopoulos said to viewers and Biden, who faced hecklers in the last debate in Detroit, too. Otherwise, all the trains ran on time on ABC on Thursday – which may not have been the best idea in what has already been a long political season.
Yes, for the first one-night-only debate of this primary season, an ultimately incorrect Julian Castro tried to throw shade on Biden on a few occasions, mocking the 76-year old’s memory to derision from other candidates, and more, tried to fly a Barack Obama flag over the 44th POTUS’s second-in-command
I’m not a Biden guy (tho’ if he gets nom, I will be) but Castro feeding into that narrative is irresponsible and gross.
— Brian Koppelman (@briankoppelman) September 13, 2019
Sure, there were a couple of towel snappings elsewhere and a decent burn of Trump by Senator Kamala Harris. But for the most part, tonight’s carefully formatted conclave was a joint exercise in civics and civility, with no breakout and Biden holding his pace in the front-runner position
A stark contrast to the GOP retreat-attending Trump (who is literally running our country like a game show,” said Sen Klobuchar this evening), but not exactly captivating television as the policy talking points flew. Bruised and somewhat battered in past debates in his third Presidential run, Biden clearly had an extra shot of espresso in his latte tonight. Yet, even with strong support and attitude from his social media team, Biden’s resume reciting felt redux after the last two times the candidates gathered.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 13, 2019
Unfortunately, outside the Texas hall, the most traction the ex-Veep seemed to get was his reference to a “record player” in discussing language exposure for young children, which would have been great if this was the 1976 election.
Starting off with opening remarks from Texas native and ex-HUD Secretary Castro, and an oddly received promise by long- shot tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang to give 10 Americans $1,000 a month, the leaner but not meaner third debate saw the former VP in the house with second place poller Senator Warren, a raspy Senator Bernie Sanders, California’s Sen. Harris, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, ex-Congressman O’Rourke, Senator Cory Booker and Minnesota’s Klobuchar.
Having said that, there were 10 candidates on-stage taking questions from Ramos, ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos (who oddly referred to the ex-VP as “Senator” a couple of times), ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir, and ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis. But this was the Joe, Elizabeth and, to a clearly lesser degree, Bernie show from the kickoff – even if that show is way more broadcast TV than the cable and streaming that is the American body politic in 2019.
Right next to front-runner Biden on stage, Massachusetts’s Warren whipped out her Texas credentials to the Houston crowd to applause in her opening remarks. Taking up the most time on Thursday, as he has in past debates, the ex-VP started with the blue meat of a JFK reference. He then offered a list of moonshot goals that clearly sounded like the ex-Delaware Senator was testing out lines for his nomination acceptance speech next year in Milwaukee.
With the first question coming at the 17-minute mark from former Bill Clinton sideman Stephanopoulos and directed to Biden on healthcare, Barack Obama’s official sideman lost the baton when Warren followed-up with an answer that out-praised the former VP on the 44th POTUS, a hard feat in Democratic circles. Fighting for his political relevance in a tightening race, Castro not long afterward tried landing a blow on Biden in their quick back and forth on healthcare for all.
It may have been to Biden’s benefit in the long game. My colleague Ted Johnson noted that: I think Biden has made a point of getting indignant at points to show that he has the fire in the belly to take on Trump. I second that.
Overall, the curated gathering hit the tried and true Democrat hot buttons of healthcare, race relations, criminal justice reform, gun control (which has greater resonance in the Lone Star state after the massacre in El Paso early last month), immigration, trade, terror and overseas wars, education, and, as everyone whacked Trump repeatedly, in a twist, personal tales of setbacks and resilience.
“Faith sees best in the dark.”
— ABC News (@ABC) September 13, 2019
While tonight’s 8–11 PM ET debate looked to be longer than Avengers: Endgame on the surface, once you peel off the intros and the ad breaks, it really ended up at about two hours. The problem is, as we wait for more no-hopefuls to peel off the primary race, it is still too long in America 2019. While I have little doubt the ratings will be healthy for this Big 4 debate, it wasn’t the smartest move on the part of the Disney-owned network and Univision to be going up against MLB on Fox and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking on the Carolina Panthers on NFL Network.
So, two suggestions for the next debate in the fall. One, go back to the 90-minutes that were the norm in 2008. Two, don’t mess with sports – you’ll lose.
In that vein, the most telling moment of tonight’s debate may have come when it was all officially over and Biden and Ramos were locked in conversation onstage.
Perhaps they were having a debate of their own about the hard-hitting questions the Univision anchor had for the ex-VP over the Obama administration’s’ immigration and deportation policies – if so, that’s the debate the America of 2019 really wants to see not another three-ring circus.
Then, Houston, we may have a solution.