In what was easily the sleepiest of the Democratic primary debates so far, more Democrats than necessary sparred over a series of questions last night that proved frustratingly heavy on Trump-related softballs and abstractions about national unity.
Such as it was, much of the actual substance of the debate followed a by-now-familiar script — occasionally for the better but most often for the worst.
Bernie Sanders talked about his signature issues and made a number of bold interventions on foreign policy. Elizabeth Warren led with corruption. Amy Klobuchar offered up her trademark bromides about how good things aren’t possible, to the usual plaudits from some members of the media. Pete Buttigieg traded in misleading talking points about health-care policy originally pioneered by Republicans. Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard had a tense exchange that mirrored this summer’s clash in Detroit. Andrew Yang, who was afforded by far the least speaking time by MSNBC’s moderators, managed to get in a somewhat pointed answer about young men and gun violence. Perhaps exhausted from his journey through time prior to the debate, Joe Biden stumbled between soporific drowsiness and mercurial anger.
In other words: a mostly par-for-the-course Democratic Party affair circa 2019.
If the debate made for frustrating viewing, the major reasons were what it didn’t include — and the peculiar framings of key issues that resulted from MSNBC’s chosen questions and at times intensely partisan moderation (with a few assists from the candidates themselves).
Though the respective candidates’ final speaking times proved somewhat more egalitarian than at the debate’s outset, its opening quarter of an hour or so felt more like an Elizabeth Warren town hall than a forum with ten people on stage. An early and somewhat lengthy exchange between Warren and Booker, for example, would have given the casual viewer the impression that the anti-inequality measures on the table in the primaries range from a modest wealth tax on one side to vague ideas about promoting “aspiration” on the other.
Health-care policy, the most important issue for voters in the 2018 midterms according to exit polls, got only a brief hearing in the first hour, though we did thankfully get to find out what Andrew Yang would say to Vladimir Putin during an entirely imaginary phone call. Despite a few questions at least theoretically related to foreign policy, the Trump administration’s recent support for a right-wing military coup in Bolivia did not warrant a single mention from America’s leading liberal cable network. And although there was a segment dedicated to issues of race, Pete Buttigieg somehow left the stage without having to meaningfully answer for the fallout around his train wreck of a racial justice plan (though here, the fault lies far more with Harris than with any of the moderators).
While a few candidates undoubtedly faced critical moments, MSNBC’s moderators (true to form) seemed to reserve the most negatively framed questions for Sanders — the Vermont senator having to field a range of queries that included: “Is President Obama wrong?”, “They’ve chanted ‘Lock Him [Trump] Up’ at a recent World Series game in Washington [and] at least two of your campaign events recently. Senator, should Democrats discourage this? Or are you okay with it?”, and “Would you cut a deal with the Taliban to end the war even if it means the collapse of the Afghan government that America has long supported?”
For good measure, the network’s coverage was bracketed at each end by substance-free anti-Sanders barrages from some of its talking heads. Mere moments before the debate commenced, Steve Schmidt (the strategic genius who helped pushed Sarah Palin to run alongside John McCain in 2008) was given airtime to announce: “I do think there is a danger when you look at some of the ideology that we’ve seen front and center in this field. In America, a sociopath will beat a socialist seven days a week and twice on Sunday.” Only minutes after the debate concluded, Schmidt’s tangent was somehow one-upped by Chris Matthews: “I noticed something tonight that . . . is a real San Andreas Fault in the Democratic Party today. You can talk about how you all don’t like Trump, you want to get rid of him. But Bernie won’t even agree with that. His first chance tonight and he basically said, ‘This isn’t about getting rid of Trump, this is about my big social-democratic revolution that I want to start.’”
With the first primaries and caucuses finally looming on the horizon, the number of candidates in subsequent debates is certain to narrow. Until then, expect any intervening forums to follow the disappointing template offered up by MSNBC last night: overcrowded, light on substance, and somehow partisan as hell.