Democrats retreat from reality: Understanding last week's depressing debate

Last week's debate wasn't the heavyweight battle in the Bayou City many hoped for. It was Democrats gone dismal

Published September 16, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT , former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. gesture to answer a question Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT , former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. gesture to answer a question Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

That was the most depressing debate ever. It already feels like the beginning of the end: The wannabe progressives seem to be going back into their shells, propping up Obama and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and homeland greatness. They rushed after Bernie Sanders in the early going as if to silence him forever, and in general starkly retreated from the earlier two debates, which, despite the shortness of response times and chaos — or perhaps because of them — were so much more illuminating. Opportunity after opportunity for clarity went begging, and it felt that we were looking at the end of the promise of open-ended argument that we glimpsed in the glorious summer debate-fests. 

Sanders, the author of the boldest Green New Deal plan in existence, which promises the imminent termination of the fossil-fuel era and dares to visualize a new economy of the future, was the only one not asked the question about climate change! That’s how bad it was. 

The obligatory beginning with Medicare for All — health care still polls as the most important issue to voters — was all too brief, and kicked up more dust and confusion than any coherence. Sanders missed a clear opportunity to challenge Warren on whether or not she was for abolishing private insurance, which she had already refused to answer directly in response to a moderator’s question. Joe Biden was at his most animated in the debate when he showed furious anger at Sanders, firing off false accusations about the cost of his Medicare for All plan, and indulging in outright delusion about where the ACA stands now and whether the current health care system is sustainable.

Thereafter, Biden couldn’t summon such passionate anger for any other issue, and tended to get lost in his reveries of being a vice president in the present tense. What would Medicare for All really cost? Would it be a net cost savings? Nobody was asked to raise their hands if they believed private insurance should be abolished, as on previous occasions, but perhaps that blunt tactic is the best way to get commitment from this crowd.

The “moderate” candidates seemed to have decided to go for Sanders’ jugular — he showed up with a hoarse throat and apparently not looking too well — when in previous debates they had been overtly respectful to him. Perhaps his decline in some polls has emboldened them, which would be a bad sign for the future, and perhaps indicates a misreading on my part as to how much Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, etc., really feel about Sanders’ status as the leader with the boldest ideas. This time they all started singing the praises of Barack Obama, a trend that continued all night long. 

Obama reemerged as the saintly presence who couldn’t be criticized, and overnight the ACA seems to have become the gold standard all over again, needing improvement and embellishment but perhaps not immediate scrapping in favor of Medicare for All. Amy Klobuchar — with Tim Ryan, Michael Bennet, John Delaney and Steve Bullock absent, and surely on their way to the exit along with John Hickenlooper — had to play the role of the realist spoilsport on every issue. That's supposed to qualify as Midwestern wisdom: Only go for what you can realistically achieve, never shoot for anything dreamier. 

In response to Sanders’ line of “I wrote the damn bill” from a previous debate, Klobuchar had a rehearsed the comeback, “I read the bill,” whereby we learned, as a great revelation, that on page 8 it abolished private health insurance. What a tragedy it would be for people to lose access to their private health insurance! (Not the same thing as losing health care, let us note.) Such was the level of debate.

I can’t wait for Obama’s public option — which remains a favorite with a number of candidates, as we gathered today, rather than Medicare for All, toward which they all seemed to be leaning in earlier debates — to make a total comeback, just as soon as we’re done with this drama of the debates and can get down to some reality. Kamala Harris seems to have completely recoiled from Medicare for All, which goes along with her cringe-worthy general diminishment, as the candidate who always tries to create drama, reaches for lame gotcha moments and recites canned jokes and one-liners which she then pauses to admire. 

So go for the jugular when it comes to Medicare for All, savage Sanders when he seems ill, and prove your moderate, realist, pragmatic credentials by speaking highly of Obama. That seemed to be the starting strategy, after which the whole night went to ruin. 

They didn’t even spend enough time on health care, and most of the rest of the debate was taken up with cultural issues — racism, gun violence, and immigration, if only to the extent that it has become wrapped up in the culture war. This was followed by the most depressing segment of all: the great American foreign policy discussion. Previous debates were criticized for ignoring the issue, so they made up for that with an utterly banal recitation of clichés about American lives and American security. Only in America is war treated so casually, and spoken of so deliberately and measuredly, without exciting melancholy and exhaustion, as though war were a special dispensation granted to us, as we decide whether or not to kill people in other countries according to our unique moral calculus.  

Pete Buttigieg tried to rise above the level of his actual years by playing the role of wise man, or just a very civil person. If he thinks that’s adding to his gravitas, it’s not. It just makes him look all the more callow, because you feel sorry for him that he’s never had the luxury of letting his hair down and having unprogrammed thoughts about wild days and wild nights — or perhaps he has, but judging by the way they all responded to the resilience question, we’ll never find out. He’s another Midwesterner, like Klobuchar, dead center, which means you’re … nowhere?

Klobuchar was asked from time to time how she would mediate the extremes on the stage, as though only Midwesterners think straight and plan well. Buttigieg desperately wants to play that role of middle-of-the-road middleman, and for the life of me I cannot imagine him as a McKinsey consultant, which is what he once was, having to utter the dreaded pronouncements about cost-cutting layoffs. 

Buttigieg sort of came alive when talking about entrepreneurship and free market solutions to racism, but it was interesting that none of them brought up the economic system as the structural cause of racism. I believe Sanders wasn’t asked about racism either, despite his far-reaching plan for racial justice, the moderators kindly giving him half-hour breaks to let him rest his gravelly voice.

Racism was treated throughout the night as an independent variable, a first cause, as in talking about Trump and his brand of racism, without any connection to our way of life. If you practice our brand of capitalism, you get a system where human beings are treated as commodities, as less than human, and any advantage the capitalist can derive over another human being by putting him down, including limiting him by racist stereotype, he will do so. But this was a serious “public policy” discussion, at a historically black college no less, so they had to keep things serious by pretending we can do something about racism while never saying a word about where racism comes from. 

The moderators got to show off that they were all anti-racists (no, they never had a racist thought in their lives), while up on stage, right in the middle as the frontrunner, stood a man whose whole life, from his passionate enthusiasm for the war on drugs to his championship of neoliberal policies that have torn apart communities, might be said to be one continuous 50-year practice of systemic racism. Just as the African American female moderator, Linsey Davis, started asking Biden about segregation in the schools (Kamala Harris’ specialty attack against him), Biden froze into his creepiest smile for a few seconds, before abruptly shutting it off, as though realizing he was in public on the debate stage, not in his bathrobe at home reading the obituaries of his dead segregationist friends.

That moment was only exceeded for sad hilarity by his sudden decision, after cutting himself off at the end of his responses with “My time is up” in previous debates, to say that he’d “go twice over” like everyone else, as he veered from racism to an indignant outburst against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, just to make the point that he had no love lost for any Latin American dictator. On racism, of course, he sounded as good as anyone, that’s a separate issue. 

Julián Castro, whom I had come to see as more progressive than most of them on the stage — certainly more so than Booker and Beto O’Rourke — played his dutiful role of American exceptionalist whenever called to do so, but took particular delight in harassing Biden. Moderator Jorge Ramos gave Castro an opening by challenging Biden on the Obama-era deportations of 3 million people, asking whether Biden thought it had been a mistake. Castro made the most of it, although he too, very regretfully, failed to utter the two magic words he has in past discussions of immigration, which really get to the heart of it and cut through the bullshit: “Decriminalize immigration.” So even though we were near the border, in Texas, the question of whether border crossings should be decriminalized didn’t come up. Castro repeated his plan for a hemispheric Marshall Plan for Latin America, which is an issue he has made his own, just as O’Rourke has tried to make it his issue too. If you’re from Texas, you can do no less.

Assigning Ramos all the immigration and Latin America questions is not considered racist, is not seen as ghettoizing a journalist into some proscribed area because of ethnicity, so we’re good on that. Just as we’re good with Linsey Davis being delegated the task of asking the questions about racism, and what the candidates would do about it. Klobuchar said, she’d let felons “vote when they get out of prison.” Just to make sure no one misunderstood her Midwestern moderation, that's only when you’re out of prison. Inside prison, even if you’re there for life, you don’t get to vote. Pay your dues, young man! Be like Buttigieg! Go to McKinsey!

O'Rourke has also been anointed the gun specialist, because the recent shootings have been in his home state. But his gun buyback only applies to assault weapons, not all guns. No candidate is going to go there, of course, though they like to speak of voluntary buybacks of the biggest and worst weapons, the kind of assault weapons that have no place, they say, on American streets. But they’re OK on foreign killing fields? Buttigieg is particularly notable on this paradox, always sticking to the binary between homeland and battlefield, when it comes to guns. We didn’t have Tulsi Gabbard, who passes for an anti-war candidate in America, with her stated belief in the Second Amendment, which she likes to leave at that with a smile, leaving us free to ponder what belief in the Second Amendment might actually mean. 

Elizabeth Warren’s maneuver, true to the technocratic Washington insider she is, was to turn every question into the problem of corruption in Washington. So she blamed the filibuster and the power of the NRA for gun violence. Sanders took a principled stand against ending the filibuster, which I think nobody on the stage (or in the audience) actually cared about. You want to get rid of the filibuster? OK, I’ll go for that if enough people are for it, so Sanders was on rarefied terrain with that one. He might have other quaint constitutional notions too, but we don’t really care. 

Nobody was prepared to present a radical defense of immigration, beyond defending the present system, or what it used to be like before Trump, rather than thinking past it. Nobody dared to speak for greatly increased immigration, which we will need if America is not to go down the path of a rapidly aging society like Japan, out of spirit, out of ideas, and out of money. The demographic numbers just aren’t there to make up for the loss of fertility among the native-born. Castro actually compared Obama with Trump, putting the former in a positive light, which was another sign of how far, and how quickly, this debate seemed to have receded from the openly progressive stances the summer rehearsals had been all about. Was it because this one was on network TV, not on cable?

At best, Warren and Harris and Booker wanted to step back from Trump’s policies. They’re not going to lock people up in cages, they said, which seems to be a pretty low bar for a humane immigration policy, when we keep moderator Ramos’ challenges to Obama-era inhumanity in mind. Even the skills-based question about immigration was not answered well, not even by Yang, who should have leaped at the opportunity. 

There was not a single mention of the Green New Deal, the single most ambitious public policy proposal I have seen in my lifetime, a $16 trillion proposal from Sanders to overhaul every aspect of our lives, moving to a new kind of futurist economy that makes Yang’s $1,000-a-month giveaway look like a piddly little scheme from the past. It’s a proposal that ends the era of fossil fuels, and with it the age of imperialist expansion that is inextricably allied with cheap fuels. The plan was released since the July debate, so it tells you something that it wasn’t considered worthy of mention, in the middle of all the posturing about racism — as though racism came not from economic exploitation but was a problem that could be addressed in and of itself. 

Things got bad when they got to foreign policy. Which means, basically, who and how many and in what way are you prepared to kill to save and enrich American lives? Mostly foreign policy got reduced to China, a formerly very poor communist nation that has arisen from the ashes in recent decades based largely on a global neoliberal arrangement as a junior partner who would do certain things for the United States in return for the United States overlooking certain things about them, but has now emerged as an existential threat under Trump. Once we worried about losing China, now we want very badly to lose it. Buttigieg, true to his McKinsey and Afghan counterterrorism experience, emerged as a sturdy young upholder of empire. Klobuchar was caught in a bind on the issue of tariffs — she’s a Midwesterner and tariffs apparently apply only to Midwesterners — but tried to escape from it by saying that she was for a “focused tariff on steel.” Steel tariffs are OK, apparently — they are of a special quality, not like the ones on grain or cotton. 

With one exception, that being Sanders, the idea of empire merged very much into free trade, as capitalism, democracy and empire became indistinguishable. Who poses the biggest threat to our security as a commercial empire? What kinds of wars should we fight? For Warren, empire can be beneficial, as a regime of trade, when we get everyone at the table, and get the corrupt giant corporations away from the table … or are they going to be at the table too? They represent American interests too, in a certain light, don’t they? All of foreign policy, which during this debate meant mostly trade, is about America, the only country on earth that matters. Harris and Buttigieg seized the opportunity to bash China. There seemed to be no comprehension of the actual history of American foreign policy. Sanders was the only one who could say that he had always opposed NAFTA, which didn’t seem worthy of comment by any of his competitors, nor bt the moderators. 

Also during that endless night trade merged into terrorism as the other side of empire, or perhaps it was that questions about trade seemed to turn into answers about terrorism. Warren, trying out a commander-in-chief pose, said that she was for treating terrorism as a worldwide problem, and started singing the joys of working with “all of our allies,” on every continent, to “root out terrorism.” God, are we still on that? I thought that was over, like in the middle of the last decade! (Or maybe we’re returning to what passes for normality in America, after the hysterical social welfare promises of the spring and summer.) Warren turned the Afghanistan troop withdrawal question into one about the worldwide fight against terrorism, saying that she wanted “eyes and ears” in every country. One of those eyes and ears, who once served in military intelligence in Afghanistan, Buttigieg, took the opportunity to brag about his time there, while John McCain was enlisted by Warren as the final word on foreign wars. 

It felt bizarre when suddenly they started taking on endless war. Buttigieg said that we have to “put an end to endless war,” but how? Make sure they don’t attack us. And if they do? When he’s president, he said, “an authorization for the use of military force will have a built-in three-year sunset.” So he’ll make war, but just for three years at a time … therefore it won’t be endless war. I get it! War is OK, but not endless war. Biden asserted, in a rambling answer, that we could prevent an attack on the U.S. by establishing bases in Pakistan. No one actually said that we could prevent an attack on the U.S. by getting them there before they got us here — but perhaps that was the subtext, I might have missed it. Steely-jawed moderator David Muir, asserting his imperialist chops, wondered solemnly about the creation of “safe havens” in Afghanistan if we pull out. When America starts leaving a country after ravaging it through war and pillage, somehow resistance fighters organize and come together in safety. That seems to be a real problem with us ever leaving anywhere once we’ve landed there. 

At that point Sanders attacked Biden on the Iraq War. He said he would bring the world together on climate change, and that as a global community we would work together to help “countries around the world rebuild their struggling economies.” Nobody followed up on that, because after all the foreign policy theme of the night was to smack China. Sanders also said he was the only person on the stage to have voted against all three of Trump’s bloated fucking military budgets (he didn’t say "fucking"), which was a dig at Warren, who has voted for those budgets. But that was too subtle to escape anyone except the most devoted political junkies. He missed a chance to just lower his voice and shoot a withering glance at her and ask, “Elizabeth, you voted for Trump’s military budgets, didn’t you?” How I dream! Castro was good on the Marshall Plan for Latin America, and Booker defended veterans, but by then I was desperate to move beyond “foreign policy.” Please give me three hours of Medicare for All, because I know who’s winning that one. 

Just as with racism, you can’t address climate or the environment without ending capitalism. But in the eyes of the new managers of empire, climate change just becomes a great new money-making opportunity. Klobuchar declared climate change the “existential crisis of our time,” but she — and most of the others — sure didn’t seem too panicked by it, if it’s so "existential." To confront this existential crisis, she would end emissions by 2050. Most of them seemed comfortable with that year. Why not? It’s far away, the 50-year-old on stage would likely be dead by then. Mid-century sounds good enough to them. Warren went into a spiel about regulations and rules (regulation, in case you missed it, is her specialty), and emissions targets for different industries. Sanders, who wants to end the fossil fuel era by 2035, was not asked about climate change. 

Sanders found his voice for a moment on education, when he gave the most comprehensive and powerful answer of the night, connecting child poverty and inequality with universal pre-K, free public college, and cancellation of all student debt. It felt good when Booker attacked Biden on racist policies, segregation and environmental injustice. Booker's strongest moment came in talking about dealing with education in a “holistic,” not fragmented way, but why does it have to be Booker or Harris, the two black candidates, who go after Biden on racing, busing and segregation?

I thought Booker’s allusion to the Flint water crisis, as reflective of a serious health hazard that’s going on around the country but isn’t being reported or studied enough, was particularly powerful. On these issues, which have affected his own community, particularly from the time when he was mayor, he seems totally genuine. He becomes a different human being than when compelled to talk about how bad China is on trade.  

The best moment of the night for me was when Biden was interrupted when he was trying to answer the closing question about resilience. I found the inaudible screams (I imagine they were about deportation) addressed to Biden more rhetorically persuasive than anything that had been uttered all night. Suddenly the ludicrousness of the whole show, this pretense that we live in some kind of democracy, a show where the word "capitalism" was never uttered, still less the word "neoliberalism" — that is to say, the economic system we live under, which is like not mentioning Stalinism if you were living under Stalin), was never once brought up. It all became a paean to American ingenuity, an ode to a solution-oriented people who would find some workaround for this little problem too — and what problem, exactly? Just Trump, or something larger? — just as soon as we got our heads together. So the muffled yelling came as pure relief, in the way that Biden’s Bad Lip Readings are far more revealing of his mind than whatever actual words says. 

I loved that whole segment on resilience. I’m just finishing an essay on how the concept of “resilience” has been constrained to a strictly engineering outlook, as we celebrate — or forget — the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey in this very city of Houston. That was the part of the job interview where you get asked about your weakness and ghoulishly turn it into an answer about your strength. Resilience just means being able to bounce back, but starting with Biden, who we all knew was going to talk about the deaths of his wife and child when he was first elected, nearly 50 years ago, they mostly turned it into clichés about public service, little self-promotional moments didn’t even try to make us like them — Castro, Sanders and Yang being exceptions.

Warren told her familiar stump story about getting pregnant while going to college (at the commuter school next door), which brought out the resilience in her by jumping up (I’m sure 50 years ago she actually jumped when she decided to be resilient) and … deciding to go to law school. And from there it was on to her fights, her fight to be in public service, her fight to fix all of America’s problems, which she knows just how to do. O'Rourke’s resilience had to do with the mass shooting in El Paso and other Texas venues. His whole life has become about these mass shootings.  

I’m trying to be funny. It was a hot night in September in Houston, and the debate was just five miles from my home, though the difference in neighborhoods is like going from one planet to another. Texas Southern University is a depressing place even at the best of times, not to mention with all the security they must have had there on Thursday. Warren, who taught for several at elite institutions like Texas, Penn, and Harvard, always throws in that bit about going to a commuter school, namely the University of Houston, just a mile away from TSU. She didn’t do so Thursday, perhaps out of respect for being on home territory. Nobody talked about Buttigieg’s schools or how many languages he speaks; that already seems to be in the past. The eruptions of Spanish were limited, as when O’Rourke uttered a few words, to make sure we hadn’t forgotten. 

As for Bernie Sanders, I feel for him. He has spent too much time in Texas lately. He should be back in his element (and save me from depression, as a not inconsequential consequence) in Ohio next month, but then again that’s Klobuchar and Buttigieg’s turf.

Perhaps the dreariness was because Marianne Williamson was missing? There might be something to her philosophy of love after all. Or perhaps it was the earlier division of candidates into 10 times two, which made for a lesser density of high-powered candidates on one stage, and actually created a better opportunity for fearless ideas rather than canned performances.

By Anis Shivani