Democratic Debates Were Depth-Free. Will Future Rounds Be Better?

In sinking south Florida, the calendrical start of summer always involves an amplification of ambient heat in ways that simply don’t apply anywhere else in the lower 48. But during the past week it’s seemed like the sun itself descended from the heavens to lick the ocean before our eyes. The air filled with a thick steam so enveloping, that walking outside was akin to drowning in an overheated Jacuzzi.

Oh, and the Everglades are ablaze as well, lending a slightly acrid piquancy to the occasion.

Why did the Democrats decide to host this event in Miami now?

Florida is the fever dream of all would-be presidential candidates. Who wins here, wins, or so goes the lore — and with good reason. Florida has voted for the presidential loser only twice since 1928 (in 1960 and again in 1992). Somewhere along the way, Florida also became the fourth-largest state by population, with lots and lots of precious electoral votes. Since 2000, the legendarily close and often botched election process in Florida draws enormous attention from politicians and pundits alike.

Into this mess, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), in its wisdom, delivered the top 20 of the approximately 11,623 candidates currently running for the honor of being spitballed by Donald Trump in the next attempt to elect an actual functioning president for the United States. Two nights of debates, including 10 candidates each night for two hours, less the amount of time Chuck Todd talked and talked and talked.

Although the DNC’s representatives from all the campaigns reportedly witnessed a random drawing, it turned out that Elizabeth Warren got center-stage on night one, with no other top-tier competition. Instead, she was surrounded by the Texas upstart and table-walker Beto O’Rourke; earnest-sounding Cory Booker from New Jersey; serious person from the upper Midwest Amy Klobuchar; Washington State’s Jay Inslee, governor of a place he would clearly rename Utopia if he could; Julián Castro from Texas, who challenged the criminalization of immigration (though he’s careful to say he isn’t in favor of open borders); Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, who was there to increase her Google value; John Delaney from Maryland, who has been in the race since 2009, but has yet to clock support from his entire nuclear family; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was there to offer his height to America; and finally, Tim Ryan of Ohio, who apparently was there to assure a certain level of nincompoop douchiness to the affair.

Highlights included two men speaking Spanish badly, followed by Castro choosing to lay a Texas smackdown on O’Rourke and distinguishing himself as having the most cogent and sophisticated approach to immigration. It all seemed rather chaotic and generally without purpose until a wiring error switched the audio feed from the stage sound to the production sound, requiring a sudden move to a commercial break that lasted several minutes, lest we accidentally hear what someone actually thinks about all this from behind the scenes.

The first night essentially demonstrated that almost all the candidates were jockeying for prominence in promoting Bernie Sanders’s ideas, to one degree or another. These included universal health care, student loan forgiveness, free public college, adjusting the tax code to assure that the very wealthy are paying taxes commensurate to the levels of the wealth they hold, breaking up giant corporations, making the big move towards green energy and technology to create jobs and address what many candidates now recognize as a climate crisis, reconnecting the party with the U.S. worker and immediately ending the immigration emergency at the southern border.

Castro was the class of the field, bringing a principled stance on immigration in particular, while Warren showed herself to be the most prepared, the most clear-eyed and the most comprehensive of everyone on the stage. She held the top spot of the night’s candidates and it appeared well-deserved. Looming over it all was the specter of Mitch McConnell, under whom no measure (regardless of how immediate the need) passes unless it bears the stamp of the Republican Party.

Night Two was an altogether different affair. This was the stage for most of the big names, centered on the current consensus frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the man whose brazen run against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016 set the bar for the party in 2019. After them were the two challengers, one being Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, the other, California Sen. Kamala Harris. The remainder featured a series of centrists trying to appear more progressive than their records indicate they are: Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The field rounded out with another young Congressman, Eric Swalwell of California, and two wildcards: single-issue attorney/entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and author and spiritual lecturer Marianne Williamson.

Within minutes, this debate devolved into an ageist slugfest, with Swalwell opening with a cute reference from a speech Biden gave to the California Democratic Convention when Swalwell was 6 years old: “Pass the torch to a new generation, Joe. You were right then, and you’re right now.” Had Swalwell left it at that, it would have remained a cute moment despite its ageism, but throughout the night, he continued to repeat it as if any other thoughts had gone entirely out of his head, diminishing the one issue he is actually creatively engaged on: addressing gun violence and the need for gun regulation.

That shot essentially led to a field-wide opening of the floodgates as almost all of the candidates attempted to speak at once until Harris asked if they wanted to debate or have a food fight.

Buttigieg — who fired his city’s first Black police chief, and whose campaign is currently reeling from the fallout of a police shooting of a Black man in his city by a white police officer under suspicious circumstances — was rightly confronted with these realities at the debate.

On the other hand, perhaps Buttigieg’s best moment came when he condemned the Republicans’ treatment of undocumented immigrants at the southern border, saying, “For a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

The true highlight of the entire event came from Senator Harris.

Harris answered a question about race in which she described her own experience as a girl in Berkeley, California, who was bused-in to finally integrate a white school almost 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education ordered it done. In doing so, she lobbed a lawn dart right at Biden.

Biden could have taken the opportunity to share compassion and humility with actual voters and recognize the harm he’s done. He instead launched into a tirade on his legislative accomplishments, as he’s done previously when offered the chance to acknowledge the experience of people of color. Opportunity missed, the lawn dart pierced him, and as we watched, Joe bled all over the stage.

Throughout all of this, Sanders did himself neither harm nor favors. He was mostly just there, repeating his main refrains, and retained his title of “Guy Most Likely To Have A Tuna Fish Sandwich In His Pocket.”

Ultimately, this two-day event may not have amounted to much more than a means to finally start the campaign in full, as well as to demonstrate who meets the basic standards to justify their existence in this race. The next debates will be in Detroit at the end of July. The standards for making the stage will be considerably more difficult to meet, which will substantially winnow the field, and hopefully allow time for a bit more depth to the discussion. If it doesn’t, this entire election season may sink beneath the sea from its own weight.