Confession #1: I’ve been dreading this debate all week.
Not just because the prospect of slogging through three hours with 12 candidates is crushing my soul. Though that’s a big part of it.
Who asked for this format? Why is it happening? Here is a true statement: Tulsi Gabbard has a better chance of being Donald Trump’s running mate than she does of being the Democratic nominee.
So why is she on the stage?
For that matter, why is Tom Steyer there? He doesn’t even have a campaign. And if Beto doesn’t get out and stop talking soon, he’s going to turn himself into the Progressive Sarah Palin.
But there was a bigger problem on Wednesday night. The Ohio debate took place during the Nationals-Cardinals game. And I need the Cardinals to win and avoid a sweep. Because I have tickets for my 11-year-old son and me for Game 5.
Confession #2: I watched the debate with the game on in the background. By which I mean, on the giant, ultra-high-definition TV, while the debate played in a tiny window on my laptop.
I apologize for nothing.
Normally I score these debates with winners and losers. Tonight I’m scoring it by inning.
End of the 1st: Cardinals 0, Nationals 7
The Gang of 12 opened with impeachment talk and for a second I was shocked. It’s weird to think that the last time we had a #DemDebate, impeachment was barely a twinkle in Adam Schiff’s eye.
The answers were . . . not especially strong. Though Kamala Harris’s “I know a confession when I see one” was pretty good.
The big swerve though? Tulsi Gabbard talking about how impeachment is driven by “hyper-partisan interests,” and complaining that Democrats have wanted to impeach Trump from the start, and how Trump was elected fair and square, and sure, she voted for the inquiry but . . .
That thing I said up top about Trump-Gabbard 2020? I mean, I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it. But if you got good odds?
The next brace of questions were about Hunter Biden, in which Anderson Cooper asked Joe Biden if he “made a mistake by letting” Hunter take that job.
I may be wrong here, but Hunter Biden is a grown-ass man. How was his dad supposed to “not let him” take a job?
None of the Democrats came to Biden’s defense.
Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg did an effective job taking on Warren’s healthcare plan. And Warren continued to look like someone who isn’t willing to confront real criticisms and instead wants to hide the football.
Also: While Mayor Pete went at Warren over paying for Medicare for All, Victor Robles hit a pop fly with the bases loaded and the Cardinals pulled a Bad News Bears and let the ball drop between three players who were falling all over each other.
Get the brooms.
End of the 2nd: Cardinals 0, Nationals 7
Andrew Yang got to talk at the top of the 2nd, which is great. You can say what you want about him and the UBI, but I’m consistently struck by how Yang is the most normal human being in the field. This tweet, for instance, made me want to buy him a beer:
And he positively crushed the automation debate.
There was a moment deep into that exchange when it kind of looked like everyone on stage couldn’t believe that they were losing to Warren.
End of the 3rd: Cardinals 0, Nationals 7
Let’s pause the debate to say a word about these St. Louis Cardinals.
This team was 41-41 through June. Starting in July they went 50-30. This isn’t a good team. It’s an average team that got really hot. Cubs fans across this great land of ours watched the NLCS and couldn’t believe that, with their window closing, they gakked one last playoff push during the last two weeks of the season.
I mention this because the 3rd inning started with Tom Steyer talking. And I promise you that the Cardinals and the Cubs are more relevant to the Democratic presidential race than he is.
After Steyer finally went away, Amy Klobuchar attempted to tell Warren Hey, don’t go saying we love billionaires just because we don’t want to seize the means of production. I’m paraphrasing, but I’m pretty sure that’s what she was getting at when she said to Warren, “I think simply because you have different ideas doesn’t mean you’re fighting for regular people.”
Warren did not seem to like this. At all. She retorted: “I’m really shocked at the notion that anyone thinks I’m punitive.”
How could anyone have gotten that idea. Maybe from the September debate when she said she wanted to eliminate the entire private health insurance industry because “last year [healthcare insurance companies] sucked $23 billion in profits out of the system.”
Which does not seem like a huge amount of money for a large sector of the American economy, but did seem to make Sen. Elizabeth Warren kind of indignant.
End of the 4th: Cardinals 1, Nationals 7
We’re an hour into this thing and Kamala Harris has spoken for maybe 2 minutes. Same for Mayor Pete. Biden is probably around 3 minutes. That’s wild.
It’s been all Warren, all the time. Everything so far has been about her, which is a ratification of her new status at the frontrunner.
You know who else is getting a large amount of clock? Tulsi Gabbard.
During the strangest moment of the night, Tulsi charges that America has been waging “a regime-change war” against Syria. She used that term—“regime-change war”—seven times. That’s awfully strange. But not as strange as her denial that she’s absolutely not a secret Russian asset. Which is a thing some people wonder about her.
Do you know why? Because she occasionally plays footsie with Donald Trump. Because she insists that America is waging a “regime-change war” against Bashar al-Assad in Syria—which is 100 percent not the case. And because she repeats the phrase “regime-change war” over and over like a Twitter bot having a malfunction.
None of that is normal behavior for a Democrat running for president.
Generally speaking, if you have to go on stage at a presidential debate and deny that you’re a Russian asset, then you’ve already lost.
To his immense credit, Buttigieg was the one candidate to push back on Tulsi’s charge that the problem in Syria is ackshually America and “endless wars.”
Tulsi then tried to paint him as a neocon. She said “regime-change war” four more times. And Mayor Pete crushed her like a bug. You take on #TeamMcKinsey at your peril.
At the conclusion of this segment, Bernie Sanders then said that Turkey—a member nation of NATO—“is not a U.S. ally.” And people think Trump is erratic.
Raise your hand if you thought the 37-year-old Indiana mayor would be the best foreign policy mind in the Democratic field.
End of the 5th: Cardinals 4, Nationals 7
Oh. There’s Beto. He’s back!
And his AR-15 policy—sorry, “policy”—is still a disaster. He has no practical plan. Maybe we’re supposed to take him seriously, but not literally?
Whatever the case, Buttigieg took him apart on gun confiscation.
While that was happening, the Cardinals loaded the bases with no one out and suddenly my dreams of a Game 5 were given new life. Because if there’s anything you can count on, it’s the ability of the Nationals bullpen to blow a lead.
Which is probably why Dave Martinez left Patrick Corbin in there. He gave up three more runs. But at 87 pitches, he has to be done, right? And the Nationals haven’t scored since the 1st.
I’m sitting here doing pitch-count math in my head and wait—I’m sorry. Did Andrew Yang just say that we have to “decriminalize opioids” and set up “injection sites” all around the country?
So America is going to shoot past legal pot and go straight to legal heroin, too?
What could possibly go wrong.
End of the 6th: Cardinals 4, Nationals 7
Tulsi is at it again. She gets a question about her age and then, after filibustering tries to ask Warren about her fitness “to serve as commander-in-chief.” But CNN cuts her off as they go to commercial.
While that’s happening, the Nationals bring in righty Tanner Rainey who throws 100 mph bullets and gets out of the inning. Just nine outs away from the World Series.
After the break, Andrew Yang is making sense again as he explains that tech is a problem but that 20th-century anti-trust law isn’t the smartest way to deal with it.
End of the 7th: Cardinals 4, Nationals 7
The single most consequential moment of the debate might have been the joust between Warren and Biden about what the primary job of the president is. Warren claimed you have to “dream big, fight hard.” Biden insisted that you have to persuade people.
And he then kind of flipped out reminding Warren that he while she was dreaming big, he was out on the Senate floor whipping votes for her. At which point, Warren sort of froze. And then she said that she was grateful to President Obama. And studiously avoided giving Biden any credit for his work on her behalf.
I remain convinced that Warren’s biggest structural weakness is that she’s pitching herself as the wonk candidate with an answer for everything—but then she isn’t actually very candid. She refuses to answer tough questions. She dances around inconvenient facts. And she has a tendency to try to be cute with the truth, instead of unsparing with it.
And as I keep saying, all of this fits within an established narrative about her that everyone in politics is studiously avoiding right now—but will be a steady drumbeat, every single day, if she’s the nominee.
End of the 8th: Cardinals 4, Nationals 7
Oh, Sean Doolittle has been brought in for a two-inning save. He gets two outs and then gets the hook with a runner on first.
Daniel Hudson follows and hits Yadi Molina with his third pitch. Then he walks the next batter, making Matt Carpenter the go-ahead run. Carpenter grounds out to second.
As Joe Torre always said, two-out hits will get you to heaven.
Right now, the Cardinals are in hell.
End of the 9th: Cardinals 4, Nationals 7
The single best part of the debate was the final question. Normally, this is garbage time for the candidates with assorted closing statements and humble-bragging.
Instead, Anderson Cooper asked the group to talk about unlikely friendships. Klobuchar, Booker, and Biden hit it out of the park and the whole thing was, for just about all of them, kind of touching.
But no Game 5 for me.
Okay. Fine. Let’s do a ranking.
Here are the people who deserve to be on another debate stage:
(1) Elizabeth Warren: She needs to be vetted. She needs to have answers to criticisms that are entirely within bounds. And Democrats need to figure out if this is really the horse they want to ride into battle against Donald Trump.
But she’s the frontrunner and she didn’t stumble even though just about everyone on stage was going after her. That’s not nothing.
(2) Pete Buttigieg: Mayor McKinsey came to play. He waged the most effective attacks against Warren’s healthcare plan and Beto’s AR-15 “plan.” He was the voice of strength and sanity about Syria. And he seems to have finally decided that he’s going to be the back-up option for Biden’s moderate voters.
(3) Bernie Sanders: He had a very low bar to clear—he had to look like a guy who didn’t just have a heart attack. He cleared it, even if he didn’t do much else.
(4) Joe Biden: People forget it, but he’s still the moderate choice and he still commands a giant slice of the primary electorate. He was fine. But not his strongest performance.
(5) Amy Klobuchar: Absolutely her strongest performance. She found her voice and suddenly was engaged and willing to put herself out there and push back against the progressives. Too little, too late. But she did very well.
(6) Cory Booker: A letdown after his very good last debate. But he’s still a serious guy. And he came alive during his closing remarks, which were inspired.
(7) Kamala Harris: Serious question: Does she even want to be running for president at this point? Because she was barely there. And the truth is, she’s been “barely there” ever since she took a run at Biden in the first debate. Her campaign is a sinking ship. Surely everyone involved knows this? And the candidate seems to know it, too.
That’s it. That’s the list.
Why would you bring Tom Steyer back to another debate? Or Julian Castro? Tulsi Gabbard? Andrew Yang? Beto O’Rourke? Why? No, seriously. Why?
None of those people have any chance to be the Democratic nominee and they are no longer contributing anything to the conversation. Instead, they’re impediments to having a deeper, more meaningful conversation between the candidates who might actually might be the nominee.