Two and a half hours of rope and the Democrats hanged themselves yet again. In the sixth installment of the televised sleeping pill known as the 2020 Dem presidential primary debates, the American people learned little new about any of the seven aspirants on stage in Los Angeles on Dec. 19.
The candidate who showed the sharpest judgment was Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who wisely chose to avoid the latest party. As for those who did choose to participate, there were no winners. The needle is not going to move one bit for any of these hopefuls based on their lackluster performances. All that was accomplished was that the American people were shown once again that Democrats can’t keep themselves from harping on the boutique progressive issues that are going to get President Trump re-elected in a landslide if a course correction is not made in the blue ranks very soon.
The night started out on something of a strong note after the obligatory question on the impeachment of Trump, which only resulted in pat and predictable answers denouncing the president’s character. Businessman Andrew Yang successfully steered away from this inane trap by ably explaining that Democrats needed to “stop being obsessed” with forcibly ejecting Trump from the White House and “start actually digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected.”
He went on to lament lost manufacturing jobs in the U.S. Those remarks led nicely into an economic discussion fueled by the House of Representatives passing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was able to warn that the new trade agreement did not do enough to prevent the outsourcing of jobs but was nevertheless a “modest improvement” over NAFTA. Several other candidates chimed in with economic populist talking points that were short on specifics but still touched on sentiments that connect with working and middle-class Americans.
Descent Into Numbness
For 20 minutes or so the candidates came across as calm, sober and serious. Oh, but did we mention there were three hours set aside for the big show? The gravitas wouldn’t last long. Climate change was next on the agenda.
Sanders of all people was eager to roar on the exotic progressive issue, shooting himself in the foot in the process. He had the conversation on his ground – working-class economic issues – yet he chose to chuck that all away by giving his most impassioned response of the evening to a hysterical question posed by moderator Tim Alberta of Politico Magazine. Alberta brought up a potential need to evacuate the entire city of Miami due to climate change. A heated Sanders emoted on the grave “existential crisis” that threatened the world. Thus ended the rational part of the evening. The spigot was opened for all the usual preening that has so marred previous Dem debates.
Billionaire Tom Steyer emphatically vowed that he would declare a state of national emergency on climate change on his first day in office, a response that means little to Americans worried about crazy things like job security, decent wages and a chance to move up the economic ladder.
The issue also brought out the worst of optics for an amped-up Elizabeth Warren, who came across as the epitome of the moralizing librarian wagging her finger at the American people and telling them they have to make changes in the way they live.
Naturally, a mandatory conversation on race was soon to follow. Empty posturing ensued. Sanders, whose performance stood out as among the worst in an evening marked by mediocrity, again chose to talk tall on an issue that is simply not in his wheelhouse. After stressing the need to obsess about race in economics and climate change policy, Sanders laid a major egg. Asked if old white males like himself needed to get out of the way to further diversity in the party, the presidential hopeful suddenly changed his tune and said that it wasn’t about race. It was a stunningly poor answer. A narrow racial focus is unavoidable on specific policy concerns but when it comes to the candidate himself, it doesn’t apply? It may have been his weakest comment of the night.
Except for the fact that the senator topped it twice later on. As the candidates tripped over each other to prove their love for illegal immigration, Sanders called for a path to citizenship for all 11 million illegals in the U.S. Of course, it’s likely there are a lot more than that low estimate on the number of illegal aliens in the country today but Sanders, the man who once denounced illegal immigration as a sop for greedy corporations seeking cheap labor, had made his point. He was all-in on the Democratic consensus on the issue, working class be damned.
Even more puzzling was his peculiar swipe at Trump for his move to “desert” the Kurds by pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. Sanders had just sounded off on his familiar theme of opposing the “endless wars” that the U.S. has been embroiled in for decades when he made the comment. Tucked amid a staunch non-interventionist narrative, it was a bizarre attack, to say the least.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) was able to benefit from the smaller field, netting a heavy dose of camera time. Perhaps she would have been better off without it. Klobuchar received a whopping 19:36 minutes of talking time, according to NBC News, second-most for the debate after Sanders’ 20:02. She displayed a more abrasive version of the same drabness peppered with an awkward desire to be applauded and laughed along with when she said something she thought especially witty, which she had shown in previous mundane debate performances.
Klobuchar appears to have a special dislike for South Bend, IN. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, her only rival for the Midwestern Nice mantle that she seems to feel is going to rocket her to the White House. But her attempts to portray Buttigieg as too inexperienced made her look mean-spirited, especially her imperial demand that Buttigieg bow before her senatorial experience. That really isn’t a strong tactic when you haven’t done much to distinguish yourself during your 13 years in the upper chamber of Congress. It made Klobuchar appear haughty, a description she has worked hard to distance herself from in the wake of long-standing accusations of her mistreating Senate staffers.
It’s perplexing that Klobuchar continues to carry herself with the confident air of a top-tier contender despite consistently polling in the low single digits for all of 2019.
The night’s biggest winner after Gabbard was Trump. Discussions on racism, sexism, climate change, illegal immigration, and Medicare For All are simply grist for his mill. Warren once again got weirdly personal on an issue of import to a minuscule sliver of the U.S. population. The Massachusetts senator promised that as president, she would recite the names of transgender murder victims at a special Rose Garden ceremony once a year.
A final chance at substance came when former VP Joe Biden was asked about the blockbuster Washington Post article on the Afghanistan Papers that showed U.S. officials knew the long-running war in that nation was unwinnable yet kept on fighting it anyway. But Biden was ready for and easily deflected the question and was able to maneuver away from any serious follow-up pressure on the issue.
Which brings us to perhaps the central problem for this lackluster Dem field. The two most interesting subjects of the night – the working class-flavored economic discussion at the beginning and the Afghanistan revelations toward the end – offer no openings against a populist-nationalist like Trump. These two important issues were superficially handled for the very reason that Dems have not shown that they are able to hurt the president on these topics in even the slightest way.
Biggest Winner: Those Who Changed the Channel
Biggest Revelation: Nothing
Biggest Loser: Bernie Sanders
Drop Out Next: Amy Klobuchar
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