70-Year-Olds to the Rescue: The Third 2020 Democratic Debate

So another debate is in the books, and I’m not sure we’re a whole lot wiser for the three-hour marathon ABC News put us through as viewers. The good news is that at least it wasn’t as long as the seven-hour town hall on climate change that CNN hosted recently, a length more suitable to one of those 1920’s dancehall marathons than a town hall meeting highlighted by the presence of presidential candidates. Speaking of an earlier era, Joe Biden managed to slip in a reference to record-players but at least didn’t admit to showing up for the debate in his horse-and-buggy. Biden was definitely more caffeinated this time around, but I still get the sense that his campaign’s unofficial slogan is, “I won’t blow anything up.”

Who “won” the debate? Elizabeth Warren can always come across as measured and moderate so long as a bellowing Bernie Sanders occupies the stage. This time, Warren offered more details about her life and continues to look assured, informed, and utterly committed to reform. She’s about the only candidate on stage never subject to a bout of stage fright. Also doing well last night was Cory Booker, whose animated emoting—everything from big, genuine, generous smiles to indignation, surprise and more—makes him the candidate you might pay to watch as a stand-up comedian.

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The other candidates ranged from okay to odd. Pete Buttigieg increasingly strikes me as Radar O’Reilly from MASH: always prepared, but simply not the star of the show. Kamala Harris has descended into displays of “spontaneous” joy to overset her scowling. Amy Klobuchar continues to come across as a nervous wreck. Somebody should give the moderate Minnesotan a tranquilizer before she hits the stage next time. At the far other end of the stage, Julian Castro looked ready to play Biden’s assassin: full of menacing, haughty glances at the front-runner. The also-rans are many. Everybody on stage appeared to like Beto O’Rourke, but nobody is likely to pick him as their VP. O’Rourke still comes across as a meek version of Robert F. Kennedy: youth and conviction, but no bare knuckles.

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The night’s big loser might have been Andrew Yang. His give-away proposal during the opening statements was downright weird, eliciting tittering laughter from his colleagues on stage.  But that was just the start of his failure to capture the moment last night.

When Yang was asked why he was the best candidate to step up to the role of being Commander in Chief, he might have pivoted to the fact that as an entrepreneur he could argue that, ultimately, the state of the nation’s economy is what enables paying our large defense department budgets. Without money, nobody’s safe from China, Russia or losing the American dream. All in all, in the end, it was the three septuagenarians—Biden, Warren and Sanders—occupying center stage and promising to deliver us from Trump, a 70-year-old-plus leader himself. Of them, Warren seems the most in command of the details; Sanders the best at shouting, ever more hoarsely: “The house is on fire.” Meanwhile, Biden smiles and Trump continues to burn everything he touches.

1st Debates, 2nd Night: Sanders Roars, Harris Implores, Biden Falters

Smashmouth politics is Bernie Sanders’ rhetorical specialty. Nobody is going to out-anger him among the Democratic contenders in the 2020 race. But as pundits assign “lanes” to the candidates based on who can or might “own” the middle or the left wing of the party, and the African-American or Hispanic or women’s vote, they leave out another set of criteria: emotions. Last night, Kamala Harris took a “lane” rarely used on presidential debate stages—namely, sadness—and used it to devastating effect. It’s unlikely Joe Biden’s bid to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in his own right can survive.

062819-01 Biden Sanders Harris Combo

With a frequent wince in her cheeks and her upper lip pulled simultaneously upward and slightly sideways, Harris demonstrated for all to see the pain of racial strife. In remembering in personal terms how slowly the integration of school districts came following the Brown v. Topeka Supreme Court ruling, Harris led with just enough sadness combined with indignation (anger) to leave Biden like a boxer stunned into submission. With eyebrows knitted together and a mouth hanging slightly ajar, Biden couldn’t plausibly take the “lane” he preferred: happiness. To smile and, in effect, wave off such a transcendent matter as racial justice in favor of the “comfort” of local rule is no longer even a remotely viable position for a Democratic presidential candidate to take.

062819-02 Biden Harris Combo

American Apartheid is how the authors Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton titled their book about de facto segregation north and south in America. Harris took that subject matter and put it into the context of her own life as a young girl weathering scorn. On a night when Pete Buttigieg mostly performed well on stage but was chastised by two rivals for failing to better integrate South Bend’s police force, W. E. B. Du Bois won again. “The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line,” he intoned long ago and Donald Trump has ensured that Du Bois’s prophetic statement rings loudly well into the 21st century, too.

Sanders could and did scowl. Marianne Williamson could and did urge overcoming Trump’s rage and hatred with embracing love. Kirsten Gillibrand could smile and smirk (often simultaneously). Eric Swalwell could remind Biden that the former vice president had long ago suggested the need to “pass the torch” to a new generation of leaders.  None of it mattered in comparison to Harris using sadness like none other than Jimmy Carter did in 1976 against Gerald Ford. Demonstrating empathy and compassion, Carter was discussing, at varying times, both racial inequality and the void felt by families of soldiers missing in action in Viet Nam when he winced on stage decades ago. A sense of loss carried Carter forward. It’s a long ways from last night’s debate stage to The White House. But now Harris is decidedly, plausibly, on that path, and the odds are Biden no longer is.