Wednesday's Democratic presidential debate followed a familiar recipe: Put 10 candidates on a stage, fold in four questioners, and mix for two hours. This combination reliably produces lots of platitudes, which make for light eating but provide next to no substance at all.
For instance, can anyone identify without a transcript which candidate asserted that we must "unify the country"? Which candidate insisted that we have to get money out of politics? Who told the audience that Democrats are "focused on tomorrow"? Which issue(s) are "not a Democrat issue or a Republican issue"? How about identifying the person who plans to "bring this country together" as opposed to the one who will "restore the soul of this country," or the one who wants to "heal the nation"?
It's a trick question. Nearly everyone on stage in Atlanta on Wednesday offered variations of these same clichés to moderators trying to squeeze in as many topics as possible.
The fault for this does not lie entirely with the candidates, or the questioners, or even with the television cameras or the live audiences. The Democratic National Committee continues to insist on a full-stage format for these debates that ends up transforming them into game shows, and the fifth debate was no exception. And that is why these events will have less and less effect on the poll standings of the participants. Voters have seen this all before, over and over. This debate won't change many minds.
That's not to say the participants in these debates don't bear some responsibility for the lack of substance and educational value. They've all already been introduced to audiences at earlier debates, and yet moderators kept asking questions that one would expect from a first appearance, such as why they are running for president. When asked more specific questions about policies or previously announced plans, candidates asked viewers to read their web site while offering up canned sound bites from their stump speeches.
At one point, a moderator actually cut off a candidate while they were giving a substantive answer with promise. Rachel Maddow asked South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, one of the up-and-comers getting increasingly more attention, about whether he would continue subsidies to farmers being paid to buffer the costs of President Trump's trade wars. Buttigieg argued that the trade wars shouldn't have started at all. He then extended those thoughts to argue that consolidation in the supplies market hits farmers just as hard as the trade wars, perhaps even more so. As he started to explain how he would address that, Maddow cut Buttigieg off to scold him that he hadn't answered the question — even though he had.
On the very next question, Maddow asked Tom Steyer about his plan to deal with climate change. Steyer spent his one-minute response time explaining the various ways it would be his top priority without explaining what he planned to do, and then chided former Vice President Joe Biden and others for only pretending to take it seriously. Biden and Steyer then argued for another minute over who was truly serious about climate change without being interrupted by moderators, even though neither of them answered Maddow's question at all.
And then viewers were likely unsurprised to find that none of the candidates think highly of President Trump. This topic set off a cheering on of the impeachment inquiry, and yet another round of clichés: Trump is "a criminal living in the White House" who "thinks he's above the law." This language undoubtedly will prove popular with the event's target audience of Democratic primary voters, but each candidate's response was so similar that the entire charade was rendered meaningless.
What drama there was almost entirely revolved around Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), one of the lower-tier candidates who barely qualified for the debate in the first place. Gabbard restarted a feud with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) from the second debate, this time with both of them giving as good as they got, but mainly over personal attacks rather than policy. Late in the debate, Gabbard and Buttigieg also tangled over foreign policy, an exchange that worked out less well for Gabbard than she might have hoped. Gabbard mischaracterized a Buttigieg comment, which he firmly shot down while raising questions about her judgment, including her infamous decision to visit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the middle of the Syrian civil war.
Those were only brief moments of entertainment, albeit short on substance. Thanks to a lack of any specifics, the most that can be said on the issues is that everyone on stage generally agrees with everyone else, whether it comes to abortion rights (good), voting rights (good), climate change (bad), white supremacy (also bad), guns (very bad), and especially Trump (very, very bad).
The one potential exception to this unhelpful parade of sameness might have been Biden. If Democratic primary voters wondered about Biden's stamina and coherence, this debate will have done nothing to reassure them of either. He stumbled during a response to a fairly mundane question and struggled at times to maintain coherence.
When asked how to deal with violence against women, Biden started off by saying, "No one has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger," and then oddly added, "other than in self-defense, and that rarely ever occurs." That's not quite accurate, but Biden insisted that "we have to change the culture, period," and then exhorted everyone to "keep punching at it and punching at it" — apparently oblivious to the irony, although the audience certainly didn't miss it.
Late in the debate, Biden got caught out by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) for arguing that marijuana might be a gateway drug that requires more study before it is legalized. After Booker said Biden "must have been high" to make that argument, Biden then declared that pot should be decriminalized and all marijuana convictions reversed and expunged. In a cycle where populist voters put a premium on authenticity and clarity, Biden may have undermined his claims to both.
Voters saw nearly nothing at the fifth democratic debate they hadn't seen at other debates or could have easily assumed about the myriad and generalized Democratic Party agenda. Even Biden's stumbles and gaffes have become routine enough that this particular performance will likely only have a small, temporary effect on his polling and fundraising. We can all look forward to the December debate, when most of these same candidates will be back to answer the same questions with the same canned responses. If voters want to know anything else, go to the contenders' websites … and save themselves the bother of tuning in.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.