First impressions are not like fine wine. They may not age well. I came away from Wednesday's debate cautiously hopeful because it was not the cluster-mess I feared. Thursday's confab restored my angst despite a stellar performance by Kamala Harris and further evidence of Mayor Pete's remarkable presence, an indefinable something, a seriousness, maybe even gravitas, coupled with genuine likability that sets him apart. Likability is a quality that came up more than once as I compiled notes about the two evenings. Decency is another. Unfortunately for Joe Biden and Beto O'Rourke, decency and likability did not necessarily correlate with a good night in Miami.
The cognoscenti decreed debate number two the clear winner, more substantive, weighty, all around better. This is the one where the Democratic presidential hopefuls laid into the incumbent with gusto. The one where Democrats went all in on a democratic-socialist agenda. The one where a bunch of old white guys and Kirsten Gillibrand took their cue from the insufferable Bill de Blasio as they interrupted repeatedly to talk over and around one another. The one where neither the NBC moderators nor the technical crew distinguished themselves. The one where I almost felt embarrassed for Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson, who had no business being on stage, but as they were indeed present the moderators had a responsibility to give them a fair opportunity to participate. Yang's subsequent charge that NBC cut off his microphone rang peevish in the face of his lame offerings when he did get a word in edgewise. Neither he nor Williamson left me wishing I had heard more. Lest readers think I am being unfairly harsh, Swalwell, Delaney, Hickenlooper, Ryan, Bennett, and the blowhard de Blasio had not much more claim to a functioning microphone. Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard, and even Beto were a marginal cut above that crew.
From certain quarters where the usual suspects hang out came a display of backslapping, high-fiving, and unseemly gloating over the dismal performance of white men old and young. Maybe I am somewhat touchy on the subject, being indisputably an old white man myself, and an increasingly cranky one at that. From my vantage point the sophomoric resort to "white man," "white men," "old white men," &c., as generalized, all-purpose pejoratives is past its use-by date. Just saying, as they say.
It so happens that Mayor Pete was the sole white man to distinguish himself over the course of the two nights, and he gets a pass by virtue of being gay. It also so happens that the debates had little effect on my estimation of the candidates beyond reinforcing opinions already held. My personal top tier going in consisted of Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Mayor Pete. I like every one of them better now than I did before. Hmm. Did I just endorse three women, one of them black, and a guy in a gay marriage? Is it possible I'm not really an old white man after all? Maybe 'tis best not to cogitate too deeply about where that might leave me. Ah, but I digress. Cory Booker acquitted himself well, as did Julián Castro, although his heralded breakout may be a tad overrated. Bernie was so-so, energetic, fiery, but at times he looked, well, old.
As for Biden, he was ill-prepared, his performance lackluster even apart from the roasting delivered by Kamala Harris, who was rightly declared the evening's winner. Harris is formidable. The prospect of her on a debate stage with Trump is enticing. Her assault on Biden was calculated, well-rehearsed, and precisely executed (Cadelago) as she dredged up positions and actions he took thirty, forty, or fifty years ago deemed dubious by today's standards and whacked him. This tactic has become a staple of contemporary politics. Sometimes legitimate issues are brought to light. Other times the maneuver is weaponized for character assassination. Already Harris has gotten blowback (Korecki, Marinucci) from factions who believe the attack was unfair to Biden.
To be fair to Harris, Biden invited the attack with his blockheaded invocation of archsegregationists James Eastland and Herman Talmadge while trying to made a valid point about working across the aisle to get things done in Congress. The quip that Eastland never called him "boy" is almost beyond baffling. This was tantamount to handing his foes a shovel and inviting them to whack him in the face with it. Harris took him up on it.
The damning thing for Biden is that he was not prepared for the attack. How could he not have seen it coming after the foofaraw over the Eastland-Talmadge remarks? He should have had a concise response, to the point, two or three sentences, nothing more, and stuck with it. Instead he floundered like a doddering old white man.
I like Joe Biden, a decent man who has had an honorable and distinguished career. He got things wrong here and there along the way, as most of us do. His stubborn reluctance to acknowledge that people may have good-faith concerns about certain stands he has taken does not serve him well. I had reservations about his candidacy before Thursday night. Now there is reason to fear he could be a disaster. I suppose a counterargument is that against Trump he would not be vulnerable from the left. That may not be enough.
The spectacle of progressive comrades blithely teaming up with Trumpists to hang the tag "democratic-socialist" on the agenda presumed to have emerged from the debates and proclaiming it Bernie's party now would be amusing if this were a Saturday Night Live skit. I do not quite buy it, although there is undeniably a progressive tilt. Both sides take it as given that this is to their advantage. Both may be wrong. The country as a whole, Trump's base excepted, is all over the place, not nearly as progressive as progressives like to think, but not comfortably ensconced in what people like David Brooks endorse as the moderate center either.
I am generally on board with much of this agenda, however it might be branded, with the customary bouquet of caveats. I am for single-payer health care while skeptical that the transition from the present system can be as smooth as Medicare for All proponents think. Health care for illegal immigrants is a humanitarian issue and a public health issue. We can talk about drastic reform on immigration and a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and even illegal immigrants whose only crime is their presence in the country without calling for open borders. Wendell Berry has almost convinced me that government should stay out of abortion altogether. That said, I am not representative of the country as a whole. This agenda will not fly come election time without a boatload of effective advocacy, explanation, and a lot of qualification and compromise that will have some progressives up in arms. We will lose if we do not come to grips with that.
No one effectively addressed the McConnell problem. How will a Democratic president advance even a moderate agenda if Mitch McConnell remains entrenched as leader of a Republican majority in the Senate? Executive orders will get you only so far, and those will be subject to a rash of court cases in a judicial system newly packed with judges who bear the Federalist Society seal of approval. Ezra Klein took this up in depth in Democrats need a better answer to the Mitch McConnell question. Two key points in a piece worth reading in full:
"Part of Democrats’ Senate problem was evident onstage. Democrats would have a better chance in Texas if Beto O’Rourke or Julián Castro had chosen to take on John Cornyn. Thursday’s presidential debate will feature John Hickenlooper, the strongest candidate Democrats could have fielded in Colorado. Steve Bullock, the only Democrat with a shot in Montana, didn’t qualify for the debates, but he’s still running for president rather than Senate. Stacey Abrams passed on the race in Georgia..."
"The right strategy here is debatable. But it should be debated. It’s the most important question any Democrat running for president can answer."
What will the next round of polls show? The next fundraising figures? Will anyone take the honorable road and step aside without waiting to be pushed? In a better world the field would consist of Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Biden, and I still like Klobuchar, maybe as a substitute for the moderates if Biden flames out. Oh, and Cory Booker, although he wins no points for piling onto Biden. Maybe Castro too. What does anyone else have to offer that cannot be found in this group? I wonder how it would play out if Klobuchar wins the nomination, improbable as that seems right now, or Biden or even Buttigieg. Would progressives accept that and throw themselves into the fray with the energy and enthusiasm needed to depose Trump? The same question can be posed of moderates if Warren, Harris, or Sanders is the nominee. For myself, I see the choice as one between a Democrat and autocrat. I will be all in for the Democratic candidate whoever that may be.
Elizabeth Warren was criticized for disappearing during the middle of Wednesday's debate. It seems that she raised her hand at times only to be ignored by the moderators, and she had too much class to break in à la de Blasio and Thursday's scrum. To my mind she displayed an admirable blend of passion and civility, intelligence, and integrity. Her closing statement brought tears. This is where my heart is.
Wendell Berry, Caught in the middle: On abortion and homosexuality, The Christian Century, March 20, 2013
Christopher Cadelago, Kamala's attack on Biden was months in the making, Politico, June 28, 2019
Natasha Korecki, Carla Marinucci, 'Her ambition got it wrong about Joe': Harris faces debate backlash, Politico, June 30, 2019
M. Scott Mahaskey for Politico Magazine, Biden 'Dated Himself,' 'Underperformed'—and 'Was Eaten Alive,' June 28, 2019
Mahaskey, 'An Odd Stretch of Forgettable White Guys Yelling at Each Other,' June 27, 2019
Cas Mudde, Who won the Democratic debates? Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren – and Trump, The Guardian, June 29, 2019
PBS NewsHour, Shields and Brooks on Democratic debates, Supreme Court rulings, June 28, 2019