It is the end of an era. Maybe not a particularly long era, or an especially venerated one, and admittedly it might not be an era people will remember with much clarity six months from now, but it was an era nevertheless. You can call it the first phase of the 2020 presidential election, or the earliest stage of the Democratic primary, or Survivor: Fox Theatre. Maybe your only reference to this period will be some vague statement a year from now like, "Hey, remember when that guy Tim Ryan was running for president, did we ever figure out who he was, anyway?"
The initial 26-candidate cage match that has been the Democratic presidential primary up to this point reached its peak before the first debate in June, and has not, on the whole, been kindly received — not by Democrats, who would really like to cut through all the noise of the future has-beens and take this more seriously, thank you, nor by Republicans, who are dealing with their own 2016 PTSD. "The Democratic debates are going to be an absolute mess," we anticipated last month at The Week and, well, fact check: true. The Los Angeles Times ruled "reality TV has nothing on the Democratic debates." USA Today wrote that the "debates don't match the moment. Time to get serious about beating Donald Trump." Slate slammed CNN for enabling "a gross display of cynical political theater that wasted everyone's time."
Fair enough! But the 20-person two-night debates in all likelihood ended last night. Come September, Democratic candidates will be required to collect 130,000 individual donors and poll above 2 percent in four national or early-state polls. Seeing as half the people on the stage during the first CNN debate this week were polling at zero percent, that's quite a way to winnow the field. Were the September debates to be held today, more than a dozen Democrats — including sexy spectacle environmentalist man Jay Inslee, possible cult member Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne "Dark Psychic Forces" Williamson, and Clorox Queen Kirsten Gillibrand — would be cut from the stage.
For all the mockery, criticism, ire, and thinkpieces we've gotten out of this summer's far too premature jump on election season, essential debate moments can also be credited to these future also-rans. After all, while characters like John Delaney might seem like they got lost on their way to the Republican convention, the whole imbroglio is as close to a multi-party system as this two-party country ever gets, and it sure beats the dull three-person affairs of 2016. California Rep. Eric Swalwell (who by all logic had been running for president completely on accident before coming to his senses and dropping out last month) supplied one of the most blistering moments of truth-telling during the June debates when he called out South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for failing to fire the police chief after a white officer killed an unarmed black man in his city. With front-runner Joe Biden assigned to the second night of this week's debate, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney gamely acted as the ideological stand-in/punching bag for everyone to his left on night one. Tim Ryan inadvertently supplied Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) with an easy fundraising opportunity.
The B-list candidates also helped steer the conversation in important directions. Inslee's insistence on a discussion about the ongoing climate catastrophe helped pull the focus back to the fact that no matter how you feel about candidates using their outdoor voices with each other, the planet is literally on fire and no one's putting it out. Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, who is on the cusp of being cut in September, redirected attention to Biden's worrying complicity with immigrant deportations under President Obama. Williamson, despite courting the woo-woo vote with her talk of battlefields of love, gave an articulate and moving defense of reparations for slavery.
Not making the next debate stage will inevitably be a death sentence to a number of campaigns, the swan songs for which we heard last night. This summer season was the last chance for low-polling candidates to build enough momentum to keep them in the conversation: Gillibrand, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke are just a few who have failed to earn the sort of attention one might have anticipated for them before this whole affair began. Already, some of the hanger-on campaigns look like desperate appeals for cabinet or VP spots more than genuine efforts to win the nomination.
Over the next few months, the conversation will grow increasingly serious as the long shot candidates trade debate spots for seats on morning shows in this country's weird political version of a Real Housewives reunion. CNN admittedly can't be counted on to ever tone down the theatrics, but decorum will eventually win out. Politics will be blessedly boring again.
In the meantime, we bid goodbye to an era — this brief and messy period of having the largest eligible presidential primary pool in American history. To those about to drop out, we salute you. While you can't all be winners, you can at least sleep at night knowing your efforts to get that footnote on your Wikipedia page were not in vain.