The five main Democratic presidential candidates were joined by two longer shots in Manchester, New Hampshire on Feb. 7 for the eighth party primary debate – the first since actual votes were cast in Iowa. In the wake of the chaos that was the only substantial result to come out of the Hawkeye State, Dems found themselves saddled for a staggering nationally televised eighth time by a dynamic in which the candidates talked in circles and no concrete defining moments were to be found.
The White House hopefuls once again confused boilerplate campaign sloganeering for challenging conversation, often using President Trump as the easy target for their all-too-familiar barbs. When targeting each other, personal clashes frequently gave way to the bland repetition of tired stump talking points as eyes glazed over among television viewers across the nation. It appears that, eight laps in, Dems simply don’t understand the appropriate tone and tenor or even the actual purpose of the debate forum.
Seven Sticks in the Mud
The evening began with an attempt by ABC News moderator George Stephanopoulos to spark a brisk discussion on the S-word anchor that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would bring into a general election if he claims the Democrat nomination. Former vice president Joe Biden was quick to label Sanders a socialist but, along with the other aspirants, noticeably refrained from anything close to a harsh attack on the issue. Despite being a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Sanders weakly dismissed the notion that the designation would harm him by saying, “Donald Trump lies all the time.” The refusal to engage meant an opportunity to effectively parry what will prove a genuine liability for Sanders if a general election was lost.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) tepidly called Sanders a divider who can’t appeal to independents and moderates while Pete Buttigieg mildly slammed the Vermont senator’s “my way or the highway” style of politics that he says cannot bring the Democrats together and will not beat Trump. The spiritless jabs never laid a glove on the Granite State primary favorite.
The rivals then targeted Sanders on health care but, keeping with the theme of the evening, fell back again on the campaign-speak they have been repeating ad nauseam for a full year now. None of it was particularly appealing, even on a topic of such obvious great importance to Americans.
A pro forma discussion on Trump’s decision to take out top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike in January eventually rounded out what was clearly the weakest opening hour of all eight Democrat debates to this point. Despite the higher stakes as voting kicked off, the candidates played it remarkably safe and flat, seemingly satisfied to see no major shake-up to the lumbering rhythm of their ponderous crawl toward the convention.
This lackluster consensus was surprisingly not ruffled by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Despite concerns that her campaign has been leaking oil for weeks now, the Massachusetts progressive made no sharp attacks, staked out no new ground and for all the world came off like a candidate who is simply talked out. The long primary season may have hurt her most. Ballots are now being filled out and Warren is running in place. She appears unable to do anything else.
Businessman Andrew Yang was back on the debate stage but didn’t take advantage of the moment. His once-promising prospects as a useful disrupter are rapidly fading. With only seven candidates appearing in the New Hampshire debate, Yang and billionaire Tom Steyer were granted an opportunity to use increased exposure to charge their campaigns. Neither left an impression worth mentioning.
As the night dragged on, issues came and went in a blur. A discussion on the opioid scourge was unrevealing, proceeded immediately by well-trod lecturing on gun control. Biden was challenged on abortion. His position is known. Hackneyed terms like “systemic racism” floated in the air in an unfocused manner. Steyer declared his devotion to reparations for black Americans over slavery. Warren and Sanders spoke loudly on the prison reform issue that is so dear to progressive hearts. They have said it too often before. It was all so meaningless and it was all being beamed out to the entire nation.
The random generic muttering offered up in Manchester magnifies the major flaw afflicting 2020 Dems, a defect that is only getting worse the more this race continues. What, beyond a reflexive hatred for all things Donald Trump, truly animates this party and the would-be leaders striving to lead it into the White House? Eight debates in, American voters are still left completely in the dark as to what positive aims this party has to offer them in their day-to-day lives.
Read more from Joe Schaeffer.