Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Houston was many nautical miles from perfect, but it was by far the best of the lot. The ABC/Univision moderators were loose with their enforcement of the rules, allowing the candidates to more freely engage each other. By the end, the evening had given voters a long-awaited opportunity to more fully encompass the nuances of a party trying to decide between its past and its future.
The passing-for-freewheeling format wended its way through a variety of pressing topics. The night saw discussions on health care, immigration, foreign policy and war, mass incarceration, the climate crisis, mass shootings, racism, economics, and education before petering out on a nebulous question about professional resilience that turned into some kind of short-films feature you’d find on the Biography Channel. Other topics, like reproductive justice, child care and LGBTQ rights, were notably missing.
Bernie Sanders was at his stentorian finest on Thursday night. Repeated attempts by Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar to trip Sanders up were met with blistering counterattacks that served to vividly clarify the gulf between the conservatives and the progressives on the stage.
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Elizabeth Warren likewise brought her A-game to Houston. She weaved personal, folksy storytelling with an iron grasp of policy, simultaneously managing to score rhetorical points while avoiding making any direct attacks on her rivals. Pete Buttigieg displayed a similar talent for remaining above the fray while steadily and calmly making the case for his candidacy.
Beto O’Rourke, who desperately needed a big night to maintain relevance in the race, had exactly that. His evocative discourse on the recent gun massacre in his hometown of El Paso had the other candidates lavishing him with praise. “Hell yes,” he said in what became a memorable line of the night, “We’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” For a Democratic Party seemingly going soft on gun reform for fear of angering Republicans, this was deeply welcome flamethrower language.
Like O’Rourke, Cory Booker had a standout night… which in itself is unremarkable, as Booker hasn’t had a “bad night” since these debates began. He was passionate, eloquent, funny (“No. Actually, I want to translate that into Spanish: No.”) and error-free in his presentation, once again. The presence in the race of Sanders and Warren may serve to explain why a dynamic candidate like Booker has failed to catch fire; he is reaching for progressive ground that is already covered twice over by candidates who are further to the left.
As Warren and Sanders explain Booker’s struggles, Biden’s centrist/establishment existence explains Klobuchar’s own failure to launch. She wasn’t particularly bad on Thursday night, nor was she particularly good, but Klobuchar’s quest to capture the low ground of neoliberal incrementalism was thwarted by Biden, who has been preaching that gospel since 1973. Klobuchar has nowhere to go because of this, and so is going nowhere.
Meanwhile, Kamala Harris spent essentially the entire evening responding to pointed policy questions with some permutation of Yeah, this is really important and we should do something because of my nieces; also Trump is bad. When confronted with her damaging record as a prosecutor, Harris’s hollow attempt to cast herself as a crusader for criminal punishment reform was badly exposed.
As for Andrew Yang, Thursday night provided a grimly accurate argument for why gadfly businessperson candidates should think very seriously before they run for president. Yang’s “big moment” — offering $1,000 a month for a year to 10 families, to be paid for with campaign funds — was both flaccid and potentially illegal. His opaque talk about “democracy dollars” coupled with a strange self-own about Asians and doctors further undercut his necktie-free outsider shtick.
None of the candidates in Houston needed a big night more than Biden. Fortunately for him, his previous performances had set the bar lower than whale feces at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, so he had almost nowhere to go but up. Beyond dealing with his own seemingly inexhaustible talent for self-inflicted damage, Biden came to the event fully aware that every other candidate along with the moderators were looking to make their mark at his expense.
It is my deeply held personal conviction that Jorge Ramos, the moderator from Univision, should be allowed to run a debate all by himself somewhere down the line. He was there, by declaration, to represent the interests and concerns of Latinx voters because, he said at the outset, “This is our country, too.” When the conversation turned to immigration and racism, Ramos was dogged in his determination to extract straight answers from the candidates.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Ramos’s cross-examination of Biden. “As a presidential candidate in 2008, you supported the border wall,” pressed Ramos. “Then you served as vice president in an administration that deported 3 million people, the most ever in U.S. history. Did you do anything to prevent those deportations? Why should Latinos trust you?”
Biden, who arrived on the stage as shiny as a new penny and gave a vigorous opening statement, offered little in the way of cogent response. His reply essentially boiled down to It wasn’t as bad as it is now, because Trump! before corkscrewing into an abrogated rant about the Violence Against Women Act. Ramos, like a still cat with a twitchy tail, replied, “Yeah, but you didn’t answer the question.”
After stirring the ashes of Biden’s non-reply for a few moments, Ramos then trained his fire on Julian Castro, who responded by piling on Biden. “My problem with Vice President Biden,” he said, “is every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, he says, ‘Oh, I was there, I was there, I was there. That’s me, too,’ and then every time somebody questions part of the administration that we were both part of, he says, ‘Well, that was the president.’ I mean, he wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer to any questions.”
Castro’s taste for Biden’s blood may have cost him dearly, however. During the segment devoted to health care, Castro attacked Biden’s statement on buying in to a Medicare plan. When Biden corrected him, Castro responded, “You just said that… Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” The thinly-veiled ageist attack was a bleak, Swalwell-esqe moment in an otherwise positive performance, highlighted by Castro’s rejoinder to Buttigieg’s complaint about there being too much argument on the stage: “Yeah, that’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete. That’s called an election.”
While Biden certainly rose above his prior performances, his night was deeply marred by his crushing failure to speak competently on a variety of key issues facing our country. As expected, a significant portion of the evening was devoted to health care. Moderator George Stephanopoulos, channeling his inner blue dog, set the table for Biden by framing the Medicare for All conversation with three permutations of “raise your taxes” in the first five minutes. Biden was loud in taking the proffered bait but far from convincing, while Sanders and Warren eviscerated his position with a barrage of razor-tipped ripostes.
It got badly worse from there. When confronted with his own long and damaging record on race and segregation, Biden was asked, “What responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”
He answered with a commentary on schools — and a thinly veiled attack on Black parents. Biden’s reply deserves first-ballot consideration for entry into the Gibberish Hall of Fame. “It’s not want they don’t want to help,” he stammered as he spiraled into quasi-Trumpian incoherence trying to explain the responsibility of parents. “They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words.”
Translation: Biden was advocating for a scenario in which social workers are deputized to teach Black parents (who, he assumes, do not know enough “words” for their kids to learn anything from them) to parent. One recommendation such social workers might make would be, apparently, playing records at night.
“Biden 2020: Make Sure Kids Hear Words” is probably not the slogan his campaign hoped would emerge from the evening, any more than they wanted to see #RecordPlayer trending alongside #BidensTeeth on Twitter when all was said and done. The fact that this was Biden’s best performance of the campaign does not mean it was a good performance — it wasn’t — and questions about his strength as a frontrunner are not going away anytime soon. Neither are accusations of deeply embedded racism, thanks to his record player fiasco.
If you slap someone across the face several times and then shake their hand, they might actually thank you for the kindness. People are strange that way, and that’s what this debate felt like. The less restricted format made the three hours seem to fly by, and it was certainly the best debate so far, but that isn’t saying much.
Until the field is winnowed further, or until a network decides to split this group of 10 into two smaller-stage nights in order to foster a more detailed conversation, Thursday night in Houston is probably the most substance we can hope for in the near term, which isn’t very hopeful at all.