Debating Dems

Sep 13, 2019 Steven R. Peck, Publisher

For all the talk about how Thursday night's Democratic presidential primary debate was going to be different because only 10 candidates had qualified, under party rules, to be on stage for the debate in Houston, it really wasn't that much different from the earlier ones.

Ten people still is too many to have much of a debate, and candidates fearing they won't be getting enough air time have to resort to interrupting one another, trying to hit the debate equivalent of the home run.

One who tried it Thursday was Julian Castro, the former Obama cabinet officer who had earned some admiration for earlier debate performance but not much in the way of campaign donations or higher polling numbers. He chose to go right at former vice president Joe Biden, still the polling leader, suggesting that the 76-year-old's memory was failing because just "two minutes ago" Biden had contradicted himself on a point about his universal health insurance plan.

Actually, it was Castro who had forgotten what Biden said two minutes earlier. Castro's belligerent confrontation with Biden would have been a high-risk move even had Biden been in the wrong. As it was, Castro probably damaged his own standing, which already was low.

Amy Klobuchar managed a couple of good moments early on, but in the final hour of the debate, she sat stood silently on one end of the stage, often shaking her head when her attempts to be recognized failed.

The man often referred to as "Mayor Pete" because his last name is so intimidating to read and pronounce, had a pretty good night. Pete Buttigieg is a rising star in the field. The mayor of a city about the size of Casper, he clearly has established himself as a national figure. At 37, perhaps this won't be his year, but he will have other years - guaranteed.

Kamala Harris tried the night's biggest stunt Thursday. Turning to the camera and addressing Donald Trump directly, she gave her version of why she would win, how she would defeat him, and why he wouldn't be re-elected.

"OK, Mr. President," she concluded, "you can go back to watching Fox News." The partisan crowd loved it, and it got people talking about Harris again.

Normally, Cory Booker and Beto O'Rourke would have lots of voters very excited. In this huge field and chopped-up debate format, however, even these two guys - energetic, telegenic, expressive and well spoken, armed with ideas and attention-getting policy plans - are suffering from lost-in-the-shuffle syndrome. O'Rourke had the most provocative statement of the night. If elected, he said, he would issue an executive order, which he felt the Supreme Court would authorize, requiring private citizens who owned assault-style weapons to surrender them (for money).

That ought to get people talking. But, with O'Rourke polling at about 2 percent, it's just talk.

Andrew Yang, the wealthy entrepreneur with an aversion to neckties, always seems to come out of these debates with compliments, but he also always seems to come out of them with no visible bump in either fundraising or poll numbers.

At the center of the stage stood the three oldest candidates, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, average age 74.6. Of the three, Warren came off the best by conventional standards. While Bernie and Uncle Joe both look and act their ages, Warren could pass for a woman 20 years younger - she's 70 - and she has improved her credentials in areas including foreign policy and the environment. Her remarks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan were the most cogent of the entire panel. She's always been strong on the economy and education, and she has a detailed plan for everything - along with the knack for dodging bullets. No one laid a finger on her.

Sanders, oblivious to the fact that the microphone was one inch in front of his face stay as he blared away, stayed true to himself, shaking his fist and jabbing his finger as he railed against economic inequality in the populist voice that has brought him to the top tier of a presidential campaign for the second election in a row. At 78, he is not the least bit vain about his appearance, his personality, or his demeanor. This is a true believer who, if not quite a one-note candidate, makes no bones about where his priorities lie. He did well in Iowa four years ago, and has reason to think he'll do well in New Hampshire, where in 2016 he got almost two-thirds of the vote in walloping Hillary Clinton.

And then there was Biden. His age shows. He seems to get flustered and lose his train of thought, interrupting himself in the middle of a sentence to begin a different one. But the content is compelling, given his experience and his passion for policy and party principles. As Trump demonstrates daily, core supporters continue to be supportive no matter what you do. So far, Dems who adore Biden are being pretty forgiving.

By now Biden must be beyond eager to get to participate in a debate with, say, three other candidates rather than nine. Oddly enough, the assault he took from Castro, which was intended to undermine Biden, could end up helping him.

Four years ago, the GOPR00;had the huge number of candidates on stage. This time it's the Democrats. Although Wyoming will vote for Trump in the general election, there will be a Democratic nominating process in our state, and with the field so big, Wyoming's votes could matter.

For enthusiasts of national politics, even in a red state, a contest like this one remains compelling and entertaining. Enjoy the show while it lasts.

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