Dem debate 3: is there a winner in the bunch?

Most days I am seething and  grinding my teeth.  Sometimes Donald Trump makes me feel like Jean Giraudoux’ Madwoman of Chaillot, about a disillusioned idealist who wants to “rescue humanity from the scheming and corrupt developers.” Words fail me. Tearing my hair out will be useless. Work, study and other civic commitments are but a passing distraction, as with Netflix. I need to feel that the Democrats will nominate and rally behind someone who can defeat the incumbent President. Thursday’s Democratic debate, narrowed to ten, was somewhat reassuring.  It was also a good first audition for a potential  “team of rivals” cabinet.

Joe Biden came out of the gate strong, especially on Medicare for All, which the left has embraced, but, except for Bernie, is reluctant to explain clearly.  Biden’s more moderate strategy of building on the Affordable Care Act and adding a public option makes more sense than the Sanders/Warren approach to eliminating private insurers. Biden was also good on the cost projections. [No one asked Sanders why his plan would work for the country while his state’s model failed.]

Save for his vice presidential confrontation with Paul Ryan in 2012, Biden has never done well in the debate format. As the three-hour event went along, he became increasingly syntax-challenged but it was by far his best debate performance. Ordinary Joe’s  relatable style, best on display in his closing, surely pleased his apparent demographic base. And the response to ageist attacks onstage  by Julian Castro and later Corey Booker only seems to have enhanced his standing.

Elizabeth Warren is the brightest of the lot and has been running a sophisticated campaign. She has made good use of her personal odyssey, which may appeal to some Obama-turned-Trump voters. Her “I have a plan for that” is attractive to well-educated “issues” voters.  She’s also the best debater, a talent on display Thursday, in deftly not answering  direct questions about clear ambiguities in her health insurance proposal. [Who exactly is “middle class?”]  Perhaps she learned the lesson of Kamela Harris, who first proclaimed fealty to Sander’s  legislation and then badly stumbled while pirouetting away from its implications.  Warren performed well.    How she navigates this issue in the months ahead will tell us a lot about her “electability.”

Bernie Sanders was on message with the same passion and authenticity he exhibited in 2016. No one raised his older-than Biden age as a disqualification. But I wonder how many feel as I did that he comes across as  just a red-faced angry man, never once cracking a smile, consistent in his policy and unpleasantness, and increasingly irrelevant but for his supporters who may migrate to Warren.

Several lower tier candidates upped their games. Beto O’Rourke had moments of polish and passion, especially when it came to his boldly stated positions on gun control and his commitment to banning assault rifles and buying them back. But Amy Klobuchar, in her best campaign cameo to date, trumped him in articulating the importance of  balancing worthwhile goals with practical strategies for achieving them. She appropriately explained that a strong House-passed gun safety bill is now in the Senate being blocked by Mitch McConnell.

Kamala Harris  came off as somewhat tentative and less focused substantively than she has in the past. But she  was the only one to point out the clear and present dangers of what Trump is doing now to American heath care if upheld in the courts. Corey Booker, rhetorically  smooth as usual,  struck the right tone is saying that “we beat China by working with our allies in common cause with common purpose.” But, beyond Biden, where was the discussion of how an even flawed Transpacific Partnership would have done just that.

Credit is due to ABC, whose marathon format was the most disciplined to date and evoked the most substance we have seen. But there were still problems, not just the optics of having the black questioner ask about race and the Hispanic one lead off about immigration.

It was silly to waste airtime asking Booker about the possibility of his proselytizing  his vegan habits.  It was one cut away from Barbara Walters asking her interviewees what kind of tree they’d choose to be. Given the  debate location at one of the historically black colleges and universities, it could have been more provocative and enlightening to have asked the candidates their views on a proposal to have elite black athletes go to HBCUs instead of big-time Division I schools?

Where was the question dealing  with the multi-generational impact of  Trump’s  Supreme Court  and other appointments, the importance of voting and fighting voter suppression efforts?  Where were questions about the deficit,  tax policy and rolling back Trump’s tax cuts.   Going forward, we could use separate debates limited to, say, climate change, immigration, the economy or foreign policy.Or make other changes to  the debate format.  Still grinding my teeth.

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