Unlike Wednesday’s de facto underdog contest, Thursday night’s main-stage Democratic presidential debate had a clear and obvious winner. It was not the ostensible moderate frontrunner, Joe Biden, nor the second-place progressive, Bernie Sanders. It was the person many of us thought had the best chance of capturing the Democratic establishment before it became clear that neither his age nor his record of handsiness was going to keep Biden from running in the first place.
Kamala Harris made it clear that this is still the lane in which is she seeking to run. But she managed to do so while making rhetorical inroads with progressives. She was the only person on the stage willing to flirt with Medicare-for-all while calling for tax cuts. She spoke effectively against President Trump without making her opposition to him the be-all end-all of her appeal. Her response to Biden’s prevarication about federal busing was masterful. This could be the only genuine breakout performance we have seen in one of these debates in many years.
After Harris the fall-off was rather steep for me, with one exception. I am speaking of Marianne Williamson, the spiritualist author and guru whose far-out stylings were the only amusing thing about the evening’s proceedings. I did not walk away from the debate with the slightest idea what she believes about immigration, health care, foreign policy, or any other relevant issue, but I was heartened by her unabashed Haight-Ashbury schtick. A lot of it was mumbo jumbo, but it was beautiful mumbo jumbo. “You have harnessed fear for political purposes,” she said, addressing Trump. “I am going to harness the power of love. I will meet you on that field. And love will win.” To quote Williamson herself: “Girlfriend, you are so on!”
I did not find Bernie Sanders especially compelling, not least because he continued to show us that, whatever the strength of his principles, he is incapable of speaking in anything except soundbites. He had only two great moments all evening. The first was when he rejected the premise of the stupidest of Chuck Todd’s many stupid questions, one that involved singling out a single issue that mattered to the exclusion of all others. The second was near the very end when he mentioned the crisis in Yemen. He was the only person to do so all evening.
Andrew Yang’s first rather long-winded response to the first question he fielded was cogent and interesting but otherwise he spoke very little and did not make the most of the few opportunities he had. Part of the problem is that his wonkish candidacy is fundamentally unsuited to the soundbite approach. It is easy to imagine Yang debating someone like Jeb Bush at length on the merits of universal basic income or the feasibility of imposing a value-added tax. In a moronic free-for-all like these made-for-TV events, he has no chance.
The only other person who came close to standing out was Eric Swalwell, the California congressman. Those of us who wondered which, if any candidate, would be the first to take one for the team by attacking Biden’s age and record should not have been surprised to find that it was someone with absolutely nothing to lose. Swalwell talked a great deal of nonsense (“When I’m not changing diapers, I’m changing Washington” — can Mrs. Swalwell confirm this?), but his early quip about passing the torch made the rest of the evening’s anti-Biden action possible. Will it help his own candidacy? Probably not.
The rest of the field ranged from unmemorable to disastrous. Pete Buttigieg’s appeal is premised on two things, his being the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate in history and his experience as the mayor of a small-sized city. He fumbled numerous opportunities to make use of the latter and did not once allude to the former. John Hickenlooper raved about the perils of socialism. Not once but twice he reached towards what I suspect his staff has identified as the Gen X Guided by Voices boxed set-buying demographic by saying “I am a scientist.” Kirsten Gillibrand insisted over and over again that she has “the most comprehensive approach” to various mostly unspecified issues, at one point claiming that “experts,” themselves unnamed, “agree” with her. She also ranted about abortion and gave the impression that she believes high-school students ought to be given the vote. Michael Bennet looked confused and pained throughout.