The first actual votes of the 2020 Presidential campaign will be cast on February 3, and tonight saw the six leading Democrats for the White House take the stage for the CNN cameras for their final debate before the Iowa caucuses.
In a week of historic consequences as Congress moves towards the third presidential impeachment in the nation’s history, this debate was primarily a very dull affair packed with stump speeches and contenders going through zombified motions. As my esteemed colleague Ted Johnson said, “this debate has the feel of candidates who have been running too long.”
Way way too long, just like the over two-hour debate itself and this extended TV series these debates have become.
Granted the deep pocketed ex-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the near subzero polling ex- Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick were not present for the Des Moines gathering Tuesday, but it’s doubtful they could have turned opportunity deeper into triviality than the half dozen behind the podiums did tonight.
Poll leader Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden, ex-South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and billionaire investor Tom Steyer were faced right away with the landmine questions of assuming the mantle of Commander-in-Chief, ending endless wars, Iranian nuclear weapon capacity and trade with China. Instead of cranking it up to the street level hip-hop and stadium dominating heavy metal that drowning out Donald Trump requires, the six heavily focused group contenders essentially opted tonight to play the same tedious soft rock tunes we’ve heard in past debates.
When the impeachment of Trump was finally mentioned in the closing minutes of the seventh debate of the primary season, the much-maligned Biden merely strummed a political acoustic guitar with a panacea of “I can’t hold a grudge, I have to be able to not only fight but heal.”
Others didn’t capture the urgent scope of the moment or the stakes much better, on or off the Iowa stage.
Some things are more important than politics. I took an oath to uphold the Constitution. It says that no one is above the law. That includes the president of the United States. We have an impeachment trial, and I will be there because it is my responsibility. #DemDebate
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) January 15, 2020
No wonder the well-paid apparatchiks of the self-funding Bloomberg roundly and facilely mocked the debate and its participants with their hopes pinned on March 3’s Super Tuesday.
Remember, tonight’s winner goes on to face defending champion Ken Jennings. #DemDebate
— Team Bloomberg (@Mike2020) January 15, 2020
Granted, far from the crowded field of more than 20 contenders that contested the first set of debates back in June, the Wolf Blitzer and fellow CNNer Abby Phillip and the Des Moines Register‘s Brianne Pfannenstiel moderated debate saw the closely polling Sanders, Biden, Warren and Buttigieg display some slightly prickly skin in the game and willing to put drops of blood on the podium, so to speak. However, besides that Holy Grail of healthcare that trip up the passionate Dems over and over in legacy and execution, that blood was pretty thin and barely left a stain on the starched white shirts.
Or put another way, where are the molotov cocktail tossing Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julian Castro when we really need them?
Tackling their tropes of economic and environmental policy and ignoring the widely supported issues of criminal justice reform and gun violence, the litmus testing Democrats appeared reluctant to truly engage with the urgency of the political moment, to paraphrase Sen. Warren.
When Warren both rope-a-doped and come out swinging simultaneously over the recent flashpoint of Sen. Sanders allegedly telling her in 2018 that a woman couldn’t get elected POTUS in 2020, the night looked to turn tough. Yet, the moment passed quickly and soon limped back to the participants agreeing to disagree – which never galvanized a single voter in campaign history.
As no debate is an island, tonight also comes as Trump hit hard at foes, real and perceived, at a rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prepares to formally transmit the articles of impeachment against the former Celebrity Apprentice host to the Senate after a vote tomorrow. With or without witnesses and possibly rogue Republicans tipping the narrative into unexpected territory, the latter and the corresponding trial will take over the spotlight heading into the Iowa votes in less than three weeks – and that’s if nothing more unexpected happens in this era where the unexpected is the everyday.
Though you’d never know it from watching this latest debate in the never ending process. Which the one-time poll leading Warren acknowledged, in her own way, whistling past the electoral graveyard against an incumbent who has never met an earth he doesn’t want to scorch.
“The real danger that we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democrats’ constituency,” declared the Massachusetts Senator after receiving the loudest applause of the night for throwing up bragging rights that she and Klobuchar were the only ones onstage to never lose an election.
Now centered on revolution or evolution with Sanders and Warren representing a hardcore progressive strand of the Democrats and the ex-VP and now former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Buttigieg much more creatures of the center, the Democrats tonight seemed unable to task themselves with the political realities of an America that has fundamentally exposed its divisions in their rawest form.
Leading in national polls and never hesitant to remind people that Barack Obama pulled him up to the Executive Branch, Biden was determined to once again stay in the center lane of electability on the Jeff Zucker-led cable newser. Still, except for a reasonably strong closing statement, making a point of being time conscious in the theoretically strictly formatted debate doesn’t seem like the issue to connect with voters in any demographic except time keepers.
“I can hardly wait to have a debate with him,” asserted the former Veep of taking on Trump directly in the general election. At this rate, with the low energy Biden or any of the others among an exhausted batch, you would be hard pressed to lose a bet thinking Donald Trump feels the same right now – as the post he re-tweeted during the debate from Fox News Channel’s Heather Childers made clear:
— Heather Childers (@HeatherChilders) January 15, 2020