Confessions of a debate watcher

The debates have blown past their use-by date. Even candidates to whom I am kindly disposed grow by turns tiresome with the repetition of threadbare tropes and infuriating as they level ever more hyperbolic attacks upon one another in frenzied attempts to gain some edge with the electorate and for those not named Sanders, Bloomberg, or Steyer, woo donors for infusions of cash desperately needed to keep faltering campaigns afloat.


Tuesday evening's affair was downright ugly. An old college pal, an astute observer of the political scene, commented on Facebook that blood was pouring from his television. The sole positive development to come out of Las Vegas and Charleston was the exposure of Bloomberg the oligarch for what he is, a puffed-up, preening, prickly little man who if he connives to secure the nomination by hook, crook, and all the votes über-wealth can buy will treat us to a Democratic ticket headed by a candidate widely reviled within the party.


Joe Biden remains the great moderate hope. Those who cling desperately to that hope took pains to score Tuesday as his strongest debate to date. The bar for that assessment is mindbogglingly low for a man with a long, honorable, one might even say distinguished career. In Charleston Biden spoke loudly, at length, and at times almost coherently, repeatedly invoking Barack Obama, as if it were some verbal tic, running through the familiar litany of I did this, I passed that, and red-baiting Bernie Sanders (Bloomberg and Buttigieg joined him in offering a small taste of what is in store if Bernie is the nominee). He topped it off with the declaration that he would "insist, insist, insist" that Xi Jinping allow Americans into China to sort out that problem with the coronavirus, as if a little American know-how is all that is required.


Other takeaways from Tuesday, for what they are worth. Elizabeth Warren can be a commanding presence on stage, with the caveat that she does not know when to let go after sinking her teeth into a rival's misdeed and gnawing it relentlessly. I loved watching her lay into Bloomberg the oligarch, but even with Bloomberg there comes a time to move on. This objection notwithstanding, Warren was the most impressive of the lot on Tuesday. Nonetheless it is increasingly hard to see her eclipsing Bernie as the darling of progressives.


I offer the somewhat contrarian view that Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar delivered solid performances. Someone at CBS News had the foresight to place them on opposite sides of the stage. That may have helped both. They got little credit for their good moments. For Klobuchar this has been a pattern throughout the campaign. I do not think she is being sold short because she is a woman, but rather because the very characteristics that I find appealing, her rock-solid persona, intelligence, no-nonsense agenda, experience, and record, do not lend themselves to eye-catching headlines and hype. I still think she would be the best candidate in the general election and could well be the best president. Not that it matters at this stage. She is not going to get the nomination.


And some things that bug me. Bernie continues to go after Mayor Pete with the implication that his acceptance of contributions from wealthy donors associated with the pharmaceutical industry puts him in the pocket of big pharma. I am inclined to give Sanders some benefit of the doubt and put this down to ideological blindness rather than a calculated effort to smear Buttigieg with the insinuation of corruption. Buttigieg stakes out his position on health care in good faith that it is the best path forward for reasons he has laid out ad nauseam. Support from quarters Bernie assails comes not because the mayor is doing their bidding but because those donors find his approach less threatening to their interests than Medicare for All. There are legitimate questions and objections that can be raised about Buttigieg's proposals on health care. The source of donations to his campaign is not one of them. Not everything is to be explained by corruption and the malign influence of billionaires and other bad actors. Corruption is a major issue that needs to be addressed, but it is a more complex matter than Sanders and Warren make it out to be.


Warren and Buttigieg call for an end to the filibuster without acknowledging that choices about Senate rules are the responsibility of the Senate, not the president, and seemingly oblivious to the consequences of losing the filibuster as a tool when their party is in the minority. It is worth noting that calls to abolish the filibuster are bipartisan. Trump also wants to get rid of it. That alone is cause for wariness. The proposal sounds reasonable at first thought, and maybe even second or third, only to wilt under closer examination. Ending the filibuster is not a win-win solution. Reasonable people can disagree about the efficacy of addressing the problem of gridlock by axing it.


Where this puts us on the eve of the South Carolina primary. Biden might fare better in a head-to-head contest with the impeached president than in the chaotic melee of the primary campaign. He might also be a disaster.


Bernie's performance in the early primaries has the Sandersistas positively giddy, never mind that 60 percent of votes cast in three small states have been for someone other than the maximum supreme leader of the coming progressive revolution. Some of his success can be attributed to disarray within the remainder of the Democratic field. We may know more after Saturday in South Carolina and Super Tuesday. From here it appears that we are in for a dreary slog on to a contested convention that serves the interests of only one person, and that one person is neither a Democrat nor Bloomberg the oligarch.


Centrist doom-mongers are in "panic mode." Charlie Sykes and his crew of Never Trump conservatives at The Bulwark are in the throes of an all-out freak-out. In their eyes Sanders embodies the unmitigated evil of socialism/communism, thus is a threat to the nation on a par with Trump and not a whit more acceptable. They ask plaintively why there is no #NeverBernie resistance among Democrats. There is ample ground for criticism of Bernie's ideology, agenda, and boneheaded things he has said and done in the past that may well come back to bite where his feathers are thinnest. The scaremongering is silly. More and more I wonder if what the bulwarkers had in mind all along is a Democratic ticket with a Republican at the top of it, someone along the lines of Bloomberg the oligarch, though they would settle for Biden.


I say again, I like Bernie. Sometimes, when I hear him speak in interviews or debates, I could almost sign on as a card-carrying Sandersista. Reputable observers whose opinions I respect, Matthew Ygelisias at Vox for one, lay out a plausible case that Bernie could win in November. Sometimes I am almost convinced, until I begin to wonder if it is just that I want to be convinced because he is in the catbird seat and genuine reservations about elements of his agenda and electibility run second to the imperative to defeat Trump. Bernie could also, as Sykes and others warn, lose forty states while Republicans keep the Senate and flip the House. That is not scaremongering. It could happen.


Meanwhile, the primaries are an unfortunate distraction from the havoc being wreaked within the executive branch as the purge to effect the politicization of the Justice Department, the Intelligence Community, and rest of the Trumpian branch of government continues apace. Experience, credentials, and other professional qualifications count not a whit. Blind, unquestioning loyalty to the impeached president is all that matters. This subject warrants an extended rant that I take a pass on for the present in the interest of publishing the debate commentary in a timely fashion. Suffice it to say, our collective hair should be on fire over what is going on.


Editorial note: For the record, initial drafts of this piece that included reference to the freak-out precipitated by Sanders' early success were written prior to the Tuesday morning publication of an article by John Harris and Charlie Mahtesian at Politico, where some of the same language was used. Harris and Mahtesian posited an establishment "in full freak out. The Sandersistas are confident they are on the brink of irreversible triumph." Use of the term "Sandersistas" to refer to the Bernie faithful has been a staple here for quite some time.


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David Matthews

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