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The Democrats’ Vaudeville Act

Thursday's debate featured few gotcha moments and many familiar shticks.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

In the predawn darkness after a presidential debate, the glib certainties of the previous night become tangled with the wisps of forgotten dreams. This sleep-aided loss of clarity serves as a reminder that almost no one’s vote is determined by a single debate—and that Democrats will get many more chances to weigh the candidates during the six weeks until the Iowa caucuses.

We have reached the stage in the campaign when it may be time to jettison debate-night scorecards of winners and losers. Come to think of it, perhaps we should scrap them for good. Instead of awarding letter grades, it is more useful to see the candidates as a vaudeville troupe, each with an increasingly familiar specialty act.

On cue, Bernie Sanders can be depended on to use “billionaire” as an epithet and channel his inner Larry David. It was not Saturday Night Live but reality when the Vermont senator said, in Thursday night’s debate, with exasperation dripping from his voice, “People are sick and tired of filling out forms.” 

Elizabeth Warren’s favorite word is “corruption,” and on Thursday she highlighted a passage from her stump speech that ended with the passionate peroration, “When you see a government that works great for the wealthy and the well-connected [but for] no one else, that is corruption, pure and simple.” 

Joe Biden invariably flashes emotion from a lifetime of political achievement, political disappointment, and personal anguish. Irked by Warren bragging about posing for 100,000 “selfies,” Biden portrayed himself in the debate as the candidate of empathy: “There’s not one line I go through that I don’t have at least a half a dozen people come up and hug me and say, ‘Can you help me? I just lost my daughter 10 days ago. Can you help me?’”

Even when he is all elbows, jostling for position under the basket, Pete Buttigieg appears tightly controlled. Thursday night’s debate crystallized the South Bend mayor’s odd role as a child of the meritocracy (Harvard, Rhodes Scholar, McKinsey) who has morphed into the voice of anti-D.C. populism. In a trademark line Thursday night, Buttigieg decried “the Washington mind-set that measures the bigness of an idea by how many trillions of dollars it adds to the budget.”

Did you, perchance, know that Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is from the Midwest? If not, she is eager to remind you, as she did in the debate: “[When] you bring in Midwestern votes, you win big. And I think the best way to do it is by putting someone at the top of the ticket [who is] from the Midwest.”

The tieless Andrew Yang radiated the joy of a candidate who knows he will never be president but is thrilled to be in the debate at a time when two senators and a former governor have been exiled to political limbo. It was hard not to smile when Yang said with self-deprecating honesty, “I know what you’re thinking, America. How am I still on the stage with them?” 

As for Tom Steyer (the poor billionaire in the race, in comparison to Mike Bloomberg), he might be taken seriously if and when his comments in a debate ever become more memorable than his odd-duck choice of tartan neckwear.

A case can be made that the biggest development in the Democratic race Thursday was not the debate at all, but Nancy Pelosi’s decision to hold off submitting the impeachment resolution to the Republican Senate. That means that the earliest plausible starting time for Donald Trump’s Senate trial would be the second half of January.   

The five Democratic senators in the race (Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Michael Bennet) had to be privately cheering for any delay that would allow them to campaign feverishly in Iowa and New Hampshire rather than being confined to the Capitol as impeachment jurors. 

The biggest beneficiary of Pelosi’s strategic delay is probably Klobuchar, who even before Thursday night’s debate was the boomlet candidate of the moment. Another strong performance by Klobuchar means, by my reckoning, that she is now poised to enter the top tier of candidates, along with Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Warren. 

It is fashionable to castigate political reporters for ignoring deep policy substance and instead gravitating toward debate fisticuffs and gotcha moments. But please forgive me for failing to see the cosmic significance of Warren’s attack on Buttigieg for “a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave filled with crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine.... Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the new president of the United States.” 

Buttigieg’s initial response was about as cerebral as the attack: “You know, according to Forbes magazine, I am literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or billionaire.” Only Sanders, who is working off his potent online fundraising machine from 2016, is squeaky clean when it comes to purity tests about campaign financing. While Warren now scorns standard political fundraisers, she did begin her presidential race by transferring $10.4 million in leftover funds from her romp of a 2018 Senate race in Massachusetts. 

Klobuchar ended up offering the best response on campaign finance: “I did not come here to listen to this argument.... And I have never even been to a wine cave. I have been to the wind cave in South Dakota, which I suggest you go to.”

But it was Biden who was the luckiest candidate on stage. The former vice president rightly took credit for having “made sure from the very beginning [that] every one of my fundraisers is open to the press.” Yet no one challenged Biden over the awkward reality that he was the only candidate on the debate stage who has encouraged, through a wink and a nod, a major super PAC to operate on his behalf. 

With one debate (January 14 in Des Moines) left on the calendar before the Iowa caucuses—but with thousands of TV ads and countless selfies ahead—it is unlikely that a single gaffe or gotcha moment will decide anything for the Democrats. Instead, we enter the holiday season with six major questions: 

  • Can Biden prevail by being solid and reassuring despite failing to arouse any passion beyond mild affection? 
  • Can Sanders win a single convert with an act that has become as predictable as a winter cold front in Iowa and New Hampshire? 
  • Can Warren, who seemed invisible during the first half of the debate, restore the luster of last summer? 
  • Is Buttigieg real or is he Memorex? (That is a reference to a 1970s ad campaign for Memorex recording tape featuring Ella Fitzgerald. And, yes, the 37-year-old Buttigieg wasn’t yet born.)
  • Can Klobuchar sustain her momentum in Iowa and raise enough money to have a credible presence on TV before the caucuses?
  • Is Bloomberg capable of scrambling the race with an orgy of spending unknown since Croesus ran for king? 

Anyone who feels confident enough to answer those questions probably doesn’t understand politics. All that is certain is that it’s going to be a hell of a January.