First things first: It turns out that when a public broadcasting company hosts a debate instead of a profit-driven cable news corporation, you have a much better chance of hearing substantive questions and answers instead of a series of hostile confrontations that look like they’re being staged on the set of a space opera. I’m not saying it was perfect, but PBS put CNN and MSNBC and Fox News to shame by at least making an attempt at toning down the sheer spectacle and producing a televised event that strives for a modicum of dignity. I’ve written recently that TV debates are superficial acts of theater, and Thursday’s sixth Democratic debate wasn’t entirely free of all that, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. Nationalize television!
It didn’t hurt that there were only seven candidates on stage, of course. I saw a good deal of kvetching on Twitter that the likes of Cory Booker and Julian Castro were missing, and a little diversity beyond Andrew Yang would have been nice, but at the same time…folks, it’s late December. The Iowa caucuses are six weeks away. If you’re not popular enough by now to meet the very generous debate thresholds set by the DNC, you don’t belong on stage, period. And not having ten people shouting at each other made a big difference, and allowed for a bit of oxygen. I wouldn’t have minded reducing it even further by axing Steyer and Yang even though they both had decent showings, but for now I’ll take it—we learned more about the candidates last night than we possibly could have in any of the five previous iterations, and if voters were actually watching, they came away with some food for thought.
For one thing, no matter what cretins like Dana Bash and Van Jones on CNN said, Mayor Pete got exposed…by Amy Klobuchar, of all people. This tweet sums up his night:
Watch her go to work, right down to rebutting his laugh line about winning in Indiana as a gay man, which…he didn't do:
And watch Bernie own him with the funniest line of the night, where he encourages him to keep working hard and catch Joe Biden on total billionaire donors:
In turn, though, to Pete's credit, he also managed to coax Elizabeth Warren into a trap when she was foolish enough to call him out on big-money fundraisers when she's been doing the same thing herself, albeit less openly. Here's that exchange:
On one point, he's exactly right—Warren may not be doing “big money” fundraisers now, but she did a year ago for her Senate campaign and she's transferring millions to herself. Is that not, essentially, the same thing? But his conclusion is wrong: Nobody should draw from this that so-called “purity” tests are wrong, and that both of them are actually trustworthy. Instead, the correct analysis is that both of them are phonies who will 100% be beholden to corporate interests if they win, and neither one of them should be trusted to pursue progressive ideals. That's why they take the money. But to Buttigieg's credit, at least he's no longer trying to hide it.
And once again, we see the truth about Warren—fundamentally, she's a weak candidate with poor instincts when it comes to a fight. She can repeat her “I have a plan” mantra ad nauseam, but she's treading uneasy ground between a neoliberal campaign and a progressive philosophy and managing to lose her footing in both. It's one thing to pull off the sleight-of-hand with big money donations, but why on earth would you attack Buttigieg on that front knowing he's going to hit you with your own dirty record? When the pressure's on, Warren never seems to know the right move, and crying about selfies isn't going to save her.
As in every prior debate, Joe Biden was singled out for praise by the hacks on CNN afterward, although this time the tenor of the praise was a little different. This time, they celebrated him for being able to successfully string more than three sentences together without coming off like someone whose brain has disintegrated into oatmeal. Words like “more focused” and “best performance to date” were bandied about, which is odd considering that they never knocked him on his poor performances before this…were they lying after previous debates when they applauded him for supposedly standing up to the various attacks even as he was fighting a losing war with the English language?
In any case, there was truth in the idea that he sounded more coherent tonight than in previous debates, although if that's the standard we're setting for a presidential candidate, we're in deep shit. Regardless, the biggest news of Joe Biden's night was the way in which Sarah Huckabee Sanders, of all people, managed yet again to distinguish herself as one of our country's premier scumbags after Biden spoke out for stuttering children he'd met on the campaign trail (Biden himself had a stutter as a child):
The comment was so bad, and Biden’s response so cutting, that it shamed even one of our most shameless sociopaths into deleting the original tweet.
Against all odds, the star of the night may have been Amy Klobuchar. I don’t agree with almost anything she says, her paeans to the holy center make me want to vomit, her canned jokes venture into realms beyond cringe, and I think she’s a borderline psychopath who abuses her staff, but other than that she seemed almost human, and her closing statement was the best work she’s done all campaign:
We have had quite a debate tonight, but I want to debate Donald Trump. This primary comes down to some simple questions. Who has the best ideas, the best experience? Mostly, who can beat Donald Trump, and how will she do it?
So Donald Trump built his fortune on, over time, over $413 million that he got from his dad. My grandpa, he was an iron ore miner, a union member, who worked 1,500 feet underground, and he saved money in a coffee can in the basement to send my dad to a community college. That’s my family trust.
And I figure if you are given opportunity, you don’t go into the world with a sense of entitlement. You go into it with a sense of obligation, an obligation to lift people up instead of hoarding what you have for yourself.
She then segued back into the usual platitudes, but there was a brief moment where the words had a little power behind them.
Steyer decided to transform himself into a “let’s all get along” cheerleader. Yang did memes. I have no idea what the hell either one of them are doing, or why they’d want to be president.
Bernie was Bernie. He’s the only candidate who can actually pass the purity tests the other candidates constantly set for each other, and he’s the only man on stage who understands that nothing can be accomplished—and Trump probably can’t even be defeated—without a groundswell of populist support from the country’s silent left majority. He’s totally divorced from the cult of personality that every other candidate carries along with them, he’s the only one who lives by his ideals, and in a sane world he’d win 95% of the primary vote and relegate Donald Trump to the trash heap of history. He “won,” by my estimation, just like he always wins, by virtue of the fact that he’s the only one with the courage of his convictions.
As for the effect any of this has…we’ll see. Warren has started her long fade, Klobuchar, Yang, and Steyer are no-hopers, and Mayor Pete is going to set a record by having exactly zero voters of color. Regardless of what happens in Iowa, where the Mayor could still pull off a surprise, it’s looking like a two-horse race in the wider primary with Biden holding on to a substantial lead. Support seems to fluctuate for everyone but him, and his coalition of conservative Democrats, seniors, and African-Americans hasn’t budged in a year. And despite looking almost lucid on Thursday night, there’s every chance that by nominating him, Democrats are walking into a manhole if he can’t keep his head together in the general election. This shit only gets harder when the calendar flips, and to beat Trump the Democratic candidate will have to endure bludgeoning after bludgeoning, while Biden gives off the uneasy sense of someone who can be blown over by a stiff political wind.