The Presidential Front-Runners Flamed Out at Last Night’s Debate

The Presidential Front-Runners Flamed Out at Last Night’s Debate

In the Greece of antiquity, Diogenes the Cynic could be found wandering the streets of Athens with a lantern, hoping to find an honest man. Last night, I needed my own lantern to find a Democratic front-runner who could coherently explain their health care plan.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris had high hopes coming into the night. They departed diminished, stampeded by the back of the pack and their own tenuous grip on the details of their policy proposals. Compared to the towering performances of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren the night before, what Biden and Harris offered was thin gruel.

The diabolical debate format did the candidates no service once again, but someone must have gotten into Jake Tapper’s ear and told him to dial it back after his long impersonation of an earthquake on Tuesday night. He was as docile as a lamb, while his fellow CNN moderators Dana Bash and Don Lemon actually allowed the candidates to complete their sentences, mostly.

Still, the fight-night atmosphere created by CNN, right down to the boxing announcer voiceover at the beginning, was cringeworthy. The League of Women Voters hasn’t run a presidential debate since 1988. More than 30 years down the rabbit hole of modern U.S. politics, the steady, professional hand of the League is sorely missed.

The participants came through the door last night with very different sets of expectations. Biden, Harris and Sen. Cory Booker sought to maintain or augment their standing, and failed. Former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, businessman Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Gov. Jay Inslee sought new relevance, and succeeded. Sen. Michael Bennet and Mayor Bill de Blasio had their moments, but continued to fade into the cacophony of this crowded field.

Harris’s Achilles’ heel in this campaign has always been her grim record as a prosecutor, yet none of the other candidates had found the wherewithal to feather that weakness with an arrow. All that changed last night, when Gabbard went right at Harris and knocked her badly off stride.

“I’m concerned about this record of Senator Harris,” said Gabbard. “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California, and she fought to keep cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”

Harris, visibly flustered by the onslaught, defended her record as a criminal justice reformer, but the haymakers continued to fly. “When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” said Gabbard “and worse yet, in the case of those who are on death row, you blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so. There’s no excuse for that, and the people who suffered under your reign as a prosecutor, you owe them an apology.”

The impact of Gabbard’s accusations were augmented by the dramatic effect they had on their target. Harris appeared to visibly deflate as she struggled to respond, as if she could not quite believe that anyone would dare question her credentials.

Harris looked for all the world like Joe Biden in the June debate, when she went after him on busing and segregation and he had no answer. The polling surge she enjoyed after that encounter hit a reef named Tulsi last night, and Harris will be spending the next span of days bailing out the boat.

Biden took the stage wreathed in astonishingly low expectations for a front-runner who allegedly commands a wide lead over the field, a hangover from his wobbly June performance. Biden put himself in a hole before the first question was asked when he leaned into Harris and said, “Go easy on me, kid.” Handsy Joe’s attempt at self-deprecating humor directed at a female U.S. senator drew immediate rebukes. “She’s a senator and a bad ass,” chided Emily’s List Vice President of Communications Christina Reynolds. “Not a kid.”

Biden spent the lion’s share of the evening riding former President Barack Obama’s record like a sled. This was a wise tactic, as Biden’s own long legislative record is loaded with land mines, like his support for the damaging bankruptcy bill, the racist crime bill, his deadly vote on the Iraq War, and his work with segregationists against school busing. “That was a long time ago,” was Biden’s constant refrain when confronted with his own resume. So was Jim Crow, Joe, but it still damn happened.

Biden was the only candidate on the stage who never had to be reminded to stay within the parameters of the time format. It was as if he had little passion for the policies he espoused, and was happy for the chance to stop talking. At the end of his closing statement, he haltingly directed viewers to “go to ‘Joe 30330’ and help me in this fight,” and the nation’s eyebrows crunched down in confusion. It was a muddied ending to a long night.

In contrast, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had several of the best moments of her entire campaign, though her claim that being a white woman of privilege makes her the perfect person to explain white privilege to white women of privilege was a clanging sour note: Gosh, in all these years, why hasn’t anyone else thought of that? Senator Booker had some strong moments as well, but like Beto O’Rourke the night before, failed to achieve the breakout performance his campaign sought.

As for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Michael Bennet, each said many things pleasing to the entire spectrum of Democratic voters, which is in itself a fatal flaw common to the middle lane of the party: By trying to please everyone, you wind up pleasing no one. I strongly suspect they will soon join Rep. Eric Swalwell in the footnotes of the 2020 presidential campaign.

It was the other low-pollers in this cluster of candidates — Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard and Jay Inslee — who made their presence most felt in Detroit last night.

Gillibrand spoke with eloquence and passion about health care and police violence; Castro schooled the assemblage on the realities of border policy; Yang gave clarion voice to the promise and danger of a technological future; Gabbard made no bones about the menace of the present; and Inslee forcefully reminded us at every opportunity that the ocean is coming for us all.

Yet not a single one of them was able to come close to the high mark set the night before by Warren and Sanders. A day will soon come when Sanders, Warren, Harris and Biden will all share a stage together. When it does, my money is on the duo from New England once again outperforming the prosecutor and the vice president. See you in September for the next round.