Before attempting to parse the various exhibitions of affected candor on display during last night’s Democratic “debate,” the first of this long election season with many more to follow, let me be obvious for a moment: This is no way to pick a president.
Even in the milled perfection of a machine world, 10 robot candidates in a two-hour debate would only have 12 minutes each to explain why they should be president of these wildly complex and dangerous United States. As we are flesh, however, viewers were required to endure several commercial breaks, candidates talking beyond their 45-second time allotments, moderator Chuck Todd being a clown, and an elongated microphone malfunction that ate 10 percent of the event.
At best, candidates each averaged maybe eight minutes of combined time to make their points and try to stand out. They were required in this scant window to race through answers on health care, the gender pay gap, economic inequality, the ongoing immigration crisis, Iran, reproductive freedom, gun violence, the Supreme Court, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, military interventions to end atrocities, the eternal war in Afghanistan, the merits of impeaching Donald Trump, and more.
Unless a candidate pulled a live duck out of their pants in the middle of a rushed discourse on raising the minimum wage after a different candidate spent their 45 seconds quick-splaining the Iran crisis, they were all going to be subsumed to one degree or another by the very nature of the affair. It was speed dating writ large, and a comprehensive disservice to the country given what is at stake.
That they were able to do this at all (some faring better than others) speaks highly of the candidates’ comparative caliber, but poorly of the debate format itself.
That being said, there were a number of memorable moments. Tim Ryan described the eternal Afghanistan war as something “tedious” that “no one likes,” and Tulsi Gabbard took him to the woodshed with a scathing attack on rampant militarism and the “forever war.” It was by far her best moment of the night. Julián Castro had Beto O’Rourke stumbling all over the stage when he pressed his fellow Texan on the details of immigration policy. Amy Klobuchar got a roar from the audience when she zapped Trump for “conducting foreign policy in [his] bathrobe at five in the morning,” and received a similar rousing response when she stood up for all the women who defend the right to choose.
In my opinion, the two stars of the night were Castro and Elizabeth Warren, with Cory Booker’s strong presence close behind. Castro burst from the pack with a vigorous discourse on the plight of migrants at the southern border. He broke from the usual “mainstream” conversation on the topic by strongly challenging the criminalization of immigrants and immigration. Warren’s “I have a plan” campaign theme was on full display, and her passionate embrace of the minutiae demonstrated why she deserves to be called a frontrunner. Bill de Blasio exceeded the low expectations he brought to the event, and Jay Inslee leaned into the climate crisis as best he could in a debate where the topic was given less than 10 minutes of discussion.
It was not a good night for everyone. O’Rourke’s performance came off as vapid and unprepared; when asked about the viability of impeaching Trump, he got lost in the weeds of a meandering story about a painting he once saw. This storytelling tactic permeated his remarks throughout, reinforcing the sense that he is long on personality but lacking on the details.
Though Ryan finished strong with a paean to working people, he, like John Delaney, seemed superfluous to the project; they were up against superior opponents, and it showed. Klobuchar, despite her two well-placed crowd pleasers, also did not stand out from the crowd for much of the night, and Gabbard managed to receive only four questions by my count over the entire 120 minutes.
Context, as ever, is key, and it was delivered last night by a boorish oaf president who took time to make obnoxious real-time remarks via Twitter while winging his way to Japan on Air Force One for what will almost certainly be yet another comprehensively humiliating diplomatic disaster.
At the exact moment the candidates were asked to comment on the haunting photograph of a father and his toddler daughter floating dead in the Rio Grande River, Trump tweeted: “BORING!” The 10 Democratic candidates could have stood wordless on that stage with ocelots on their heads and still would have outclassed the man they seek to replace next year.
It was one debate, it was the first debate, it was a verbal traffic jam and there’s another one just like it tonight, so drawing any final conclusions would be folly. We know a little more than we did yesterday, and will know a little more again in a few hours. Biden vs. Sanders vs. the other eight candidates should be worth enduring the condensed format, and we may see some departures before the weekend is out.
It has begun.