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Another Crowded Democratic Debate, Another Chance to Gloss Over the Issues

Key issues will get short shrift in this debate — but the dynamics between candidates will be worth watching.

Democratic presidential candidates take the stage at the beginning of the Democratic presidential debate at the Fox Theatre on July 30, 2019, in Detroit, Michigan.

In my bleaker and more cynical moments, I wonder if the TV networks are doing this deliberately. The next big DNC-sanctioned Democratic presidential confab, broadcast this time by ABC and Univision, is taking place Thursday night in Houston. Like the other elaborately failed debate formats so far, this one will also feature 10 candidates vying for attention on the same platform, except for three hours instead of two.

“Each candidate will have one minute and 15 seconds to directly respond to questions from moderators,” reports Time, “and 45 seconds to respond to follow-up questions and rebuttals. Candidates will give opening statements, but no closing statements.”

Spiffy. There were gusts of relief sighed across the land when it was announced the debate would not be broken up into two back-to-back nights, but I did not share in the sentiment. Allowing even one more candidate to participate would have indeed necessitated two nights, but those two nights would have featured five or six candidates each, instead of Thursday’s clotted 10-candidate format I have come to detest and abhor.

Deliberate? Aimed at enforcing the Overton window of permissible debate by making sure the candidates only get mere minutes — and fragmented minutes at that — to discuss the enormous issues of the day? Maybe. The idea that it’s a mistake, that ABC is only accidentally crowding the stage and diluting the discussion, really doesn’t make me feel any better, though. Sic semper 21st century democracy.

Despite the fact that, once again, the Democrats are putting the equivalent of an entire college lacrosse team before the cameras, the dynamics between the candidates will be worth watching.

ABC has placed Joe Biden front and center on the debate stage, directly between the podiums to be occupied by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Given the operatic, bloody-eyed debacle that was Biden’s showing at the recent CNN climate town hall, and that his frontrunner status is about as firm as pudding on a Houston sidewalk in high summer, the pressure on him will be extreme. The speed-dating format may shield him for a time, but I strongly suspect Jojo will not enjoy the overall experience. If he has another bad night, watch for the vultures to begin circling his campaign bus.

As for the other participants — Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Julián Castro and Amy Klobuchar — the night will be yet another chapter in their ongoing quest for relevance. All seven continue to poll in single digits, and between the established establishment candidate (Biden) and the two progressive standard-bearers (Sanders and Warren), there isn’t much room for any of them to stand out in a campaign-salvaging manner.

As for the topics that are sure to get short shrift in the 10-person format, the recent spate of massacres will likely bring gun reform to the fore. Donald Trump’s astonishing cruelty toward Dorian refugees from the Bahamas will certainly inspire a discussion on immigration. If the previous debates are any guide, climate change, foreign policy and Trump himself will also be featured on the spinning roulette wheel of topics.

Like as not, however, health care reform will again be a major topic. It will be featured prominently, I believe, because it is important, and because it allows the corporate media moderators to say “raise your taxes!” to Medicare for All advocates like Sanders 400 times within the confines of time restrictions that thwart proper explanations for why this is actually OK.

Speaking of health care in the U.S., a little girl from Sudbury, Massachusetts, fell suddenly ill on September 3, and was rushed to Boston Children’s Hospital for treatment. She was diagnosed with Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), a mosquito-borne illness climate scientists have warned will become more prominent and dangerous with the ongoing onset of climate disruption. She remains in critical condition as of this writing.

To offset expenses, her parents initiated a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money for her medical care. “She remains in the ICU,” reads the fundraising request, “and while the family has a full medical insurance plan through their employer, the out-of-pocket medical costs will be massive.” As of Tuesday morning, according to the Boston Globe, the appeal had generated more than $88,000.

Here we have a heartwarming story of basic human compassion, of a community rallying to support one of its most vulnerable members, right? I see it differently. In fact, stories like this — meant to flood the heart with joyful tears — make me scream in my soul.

This is not an uplifting story about people helping other people. That is what it is framed to sound like, even as it is framed to sound like something perfectly normal and ordinary. It is a story of last-ditch desperation, one of millions taking place every single day.

It is the thoroughly commonplace tale of a family that has been financially subsumed by a sudden illness, even as they are in possession of full medical coverage, who require the largesse of strangers to run the expensive gauntlet of our for-profit medical industry.

This child should be getting treatment for free, or at least at minimal expense to her family, as should every person who falls ill in this country, because health care is a human right enshrined on the hood ornament of our founding documents: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Try locating any of those when you are sick — and broke because you are sick.

The people who have donated to this fund are to be commended, don’t get me wrong, because we are all screwed if we don’t help each other survive the lethal cruelty of late-stage U.S.-style capitalism. The fact that this little girl could very well die if strangers don’t pony up to cover her astronomical medical bills, however, is what’s wrong with how we do medicine in this country. Stories like this one are octaves in the dying wail of a carnivorous paradigm that needs to be shattered and buried under salted earth before it kills us all.

Please remember this story as you watch the debate on Thursday night. Remember that the stakes are human lives. The stakes are us.

I don’t imagine the debate format will properly encompass the health care crisis, or any of the others. That, right there, is the problem.

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