The Democratic muddle
Here is something I never thought I would find myself saying: I was genuinely happy at the start of Wednesday night's Democratic presidential debate. After 20 or so hours of tedious impeachment hearings in the last week, including roughly 10 of them stretched across the morning and afternoon, revisiting this varied cast of characters felt like reopening a much-loved old book.
Who could fail to delight in being reminded of the existence of Tom Steyer, the billionaire activist in a plaid tie who spent more than $130 billion in order to appear on this stage now polling in the single digits in a handful of state polls? What about Cory Booker, the former Stanford tight end and Rhodes Scholar who speaks in circa 2012 Mitt Romney clichés about entrepreneurship? Or poor hapless Andrew Yang, the genius wonk whose campaign is premised on a single idea — a $1,000 monthly basic income policy — that he failed to mention even a single time, probably because his microphone was turned off again? Then there is Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaii congresswoman whom the moderators feel comfortable interrupting even when she is in the middle of defending herself from accusations that she supports genocide? A lovely, thick Dickensian stew.
I almost fell out of my chair when Amy Klobuchar told the moderators that if we want to get serious about climate change, "We need someone who sees the long term, like the Chinese do." I was also very taken with Elizabeth Warren's response to a question about the armed forces, which ended with her suggesting that we train a new generation of soldiers, sailors, and marines to serve in our national parks. Pete Buttigieg's brief, cryptic reference to "the quest for the carbon-free farm" filled me with an indescribable boyish longing. (We should start calling all of our major political initiatives "quests.")
The question is whether amusing people like me is actually good for the Democratic party. I find it difficult to imagine that ordinary viewers turned off their televisions with any idea what they were supposed to take away from the preceding two hours. There were simply too many people on stage saying too many things in snippets that would not be worth evaluating even if it were possible to make sense of them. Instead numbers are thrown around loosely, insults are exchanged, and we are left with nothing except a vague impression that there are two factions here, each of which has at least five potential representatives.
This might have been excusable three months ago — in November it is as irresponsible as it is confusing. The total unwillingness of debate organizers to impose any sort of order on these events goes a long way toward explaining why it is that less than two months from the Iowa caucus we have multiple state polls being led by a candidate who has never broken 10 percent nationally. If it is the case that debates are meant to clarify rather than muddle the state of the presidential race, Wednesday cannot be considered anything less than a failure.
These debates may or may not be serving the best interests of the party whose presidential nominee they are meant to help select. What is certain is that they are not helping the man who remains the presumptive front-runner. At this point I think one can say with all seriousness that Joe Biden's presidential campaign is elder abuse. When he announces, for the second time in one of these forums, that "the next president of the United States has to defeat Donald Trump," sure, it's funny. But what about when the former vice president allows a talking point about safety on college campuses to metamorphose into a discourse about the precise circumstances under which it is acceptable to hit a woman, or when he forgets that the woman standing a few feet away from him is black? These are not amusing gaffes. They are evidence of serious cognitive decline. Never mind his party — for his own sake, someone close to Biden should convince him to drop out.
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