The latest Democratic Party debate featured the usual suspects of progressivism but little in the way of policy that would set the hopefuls apart from their fellow contenders. That’s debate number seven if you’re counting at home. The Jan. 14 gathering in Des Moines, IA, came just 20 days before the Iowa caucuses finally kick off actual voting to end a preliminary primary season that has gone on far too long.
The evening started out with a meaningful conversation on foreign policy and trade, but then sank into a morass of progressive bell-clanging and repetitive discussions on comfortable blue issues that had already been repeatedly beaten into the ground in previous debates.
War and Trade
The opening discussion on America’s role in the Middle East was, somewhat surprisingly, a clear win for Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). While former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) both showed their age in breaking down their actions during the George W. Bush administration, Warren was blunt and to the point. She stoutly called out the “defense industry” and the revolving door it has with the Pentagon to strong effect in calling for an end to U.S. adventurism abroad. This is exactly the kind of argument Bernie’s base expects him to be making, but for whatever reason, the socialist candidate chose not to. Instead, he was tentative and even a tad defensive in propping up his congressional record from 20-odd years ago, repeatedly emphasizing that he opposed the Iraq War yet acknowledging he backed intervention in Afghanistan.
As Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Biden both embraced conventional establishment roles, stating that they would keep troops in the Middle East, Warren decisively asserted that she would pull U.S. combat troops out. Saying that, at some point, endless wars have to end at the same time as her rivals were hemming and hawing made for a good moment for the Massachusetts senator. By using the term “corruption” in explaining how these wars have lasted so long, she appealed to surging populist sentiments on the issue, something Sanders manifestly failed to do. Biden unconvincingly pushed the ongoing threat of ISIS, which only brought to the fore his already damaging old-line establishment credentials.
The discussion then moved to trade, and Sanders whiffed again. The democratic socialist, eager to identify himself with the working man, vigorously stated his opposition to President Trump’s USMCA trade deal because it doesn’t address… climate change. Without a doubt, it was the single worst answer of the entire evening. All of Sanders strengths as a candidate involve him talking about U.S. workers suffering from an uneven playing field due in large part to global trade pacts that put them at a competitive disadvantage. The moment was tailor-made for him to hammer that home and score easy points. Instead, he expressed outrage over a trade deal not addressing unproven environmental concerns obsessed over only in rigid blue circles. It was a colossal missed opportunity for the Vermont senator. Even more disturbing is the fact that he did not seem to grasp his failure at all.
Biden meanwhile offered a tepid defense of global trade deals, serving as another reminder of his Swamp credentials. And so the two top-tier warhorses set up Warren again, and again she was able to take advantage. By talking about corruption and multinational corporations benefiting from trade deals they help write, she ate Sanders’ lunch for a second time on an issue he should have easily dominated.
By this point, Klobuchar had firmly staked out pure establishment ground across the board. It’s telling that globalist neoconservative columnist Jennifer Rubin could not hide her cheerleading for the Midwestern Nice “centrist progressive.” In three tweets over a 20-minute span, Rubin gushed, “Good for Klobuchar in saying some troops need to stay,” “No comparison between Klobuchar (serious, informed, thinking of our interests) and Warren (get troops out, get troops out, get…),” and “Klobuchar hit it out of the park on trade.” Despite the mainstream approval, it was an odd approach for Klobuchar to take in the last debate before voting takes place in a Heartland state that she is basically staking her entire viability around. Klobuchar needed to take some chances. Instead, she stuck to her usual script, playing it safe and trying to position herself as the adult in the room. It hasn’t come close to working so far and there is no reason to believe it helped her here.
Return to the Blue Cocoon
And that was basically the night. Some 45-odd not particularly riveting yet sober and serious minutes in, Dems pivoted exactly as they did in the sixth debate, last December. Cue the identity politics and fuzzy blue talking points.
A calm and focused Warren was rolling at this point, but she just couldn’t control herself. Her over-caffeinated librarian persona took over and she started pandering on the Women Power ROAR material, scuttling what had been a strong, restrained performance up to that point.
The conversation quickly degraded to muddled meaninglessness that would last the rest of the evening. “Look at the men on this stage; they have collectively lost ten elections,” a suddenly ebullient Warren howled. “The only people on this stage who have won every election they’ve been in are the women.” It was the kind of vacuous statement that suffocates meaningful dialogue unless you think merely having certain body parts automatically makes you a better politician regardless of your actual stance on real issues. This was Warren’s Achilles’ heel getting smacked with a baseball bat. She can’t help projecting on identity politics in order to puff herself up as some kind of cartoon superhero. It is surely infuriating to watch for many Americans and remains a consistent turn off to voters not emotionally invested in her full-throated feminist framing.
After that, it was back to health care, a topic frequently discussed in previous interminable debates. Sanders led the Medicare For All charge, turning away fiscally sane Americans with his usual stump speechifying on the issue. It was nothing more than a tired regurgitation of the talking points these colorless candidates have been making for months now. It was as if we were watching a two-hour TV show that contained only an hour of actual content and was just trying to fill time.
From there, the candidates blandly moved on to a safe and non-challenging conversation on universal child care, a subject where there clearly would be no genuine disagreement. Then came impeachment, the chicken noodle soup to every Democratic soul. Klobuchar awkwardly channeled a stale McCarthy-era “Have you no decency, sir?” rhetoric, stroking the egos of every progressive who sees himself operating on a higher moral plane while proving thoroughly boring to any viewers who still remained tuned in.
Keeping the blue soul food coming was a discussion of climate change, with South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who did not stand out at all, talking of “tornados of fire” that can only be stopped by massive government intervention. Like Klobuchar, Buttigieg is heavily counting on a big showing in Iowa to propel him forward. His hackneyed answer here aptly summed up his nondescript performance throughout the night.
So what did we learn that we didn’t know already? Pretty much nothing. None of these candidates have caught fire, and none of them are going to. We started out with 20 candidates stretched out over two days during the first debates in Miami last June. We are down to a tidy six in Iowa in January. Much mediocrity has been culled from the field, but the sad truth for Democrats is that nobody has been able to step up and separate him or herself from a smaller yet still thoroughly unimposing pack.
Winner: Warren early.
Loser: Sanders early, Warren late, Klobuchar and Buttigieg for failing to stand out when they most needed to.
Most insipid performance: Moderators Wolf Blitzer and Abby Phillip of CNN and The Des Moines Register‘s Brianne Pfannenstiel, for using the last hour-plus to serve up soft blue comfort-food questions on health care, child care, impeachment, and climate change instead of challenging questions that would spark serious discussion.
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