Democrats Take a Walk on the Mild Side

By John F. Harris

It is something we learned long ago as young journalists, drilled into us by sage mentors like the late David S. Broder: An election belongs always to the voters. We must never imagine that it belongs to us the campaign reporters or the insular circle of operatives and analysts and horse-race junkies who loom so large in our stories and expense accounts.

Well, after two hours Tuesday night watching the latest presidential debate—live but not especially alive from Des Moines — the voters we all respect so deeply can rest assured they will get no argument from me. This election belongs to them. Take it. All yours, please. No, no, I insist.

It is true we will never get those two hours of our lives back, but no complaints from this quarter. It’s our job to watch. It was not one of those moments, however, as sometimes happens in journalism, that left anyone thinking, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”

It was not that the CNN/Des Moines Register debate on the campus of Drake University was necessarily bad. But most of the dynamics on display were familiar — as in, very familiar — in ways that evidently suited the candidates’ interests in staying safe but also seemed to challenge the basic theory of the officially sanctioned Democratic National Committee debate schedule.

This was the seventh debate since last summer, and the last before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses. At least as I understood the hypothesis, the gradually rising thresholds to qualify for the debate stage — six candidates this time compared with 20 over two nights at the first encounter last June — would replace the historic role of early-state voting in winnowing the field and clarifying the race.

It is true that the field has been winnowed, but it’s hardly clear that electrifying debate moments along the way have played that big a role. The people bunched at the top of the race are mostly the same, led by former Vice President Joe Biden, probably the weakest debater in the top tier. Some briefly viral moments from the summer and fall passed quickly, delivered by candidates no longer in the race. With voting finally just around the corner, one might assume this latest encounter would represent a debate crescendo. In musical terms, however, it was more of a fermata — the term for holding a note rather than beginning the next one — with some modest variations in emphasis but no fundamentally new arguments.

By evening’s end, it seemed possible that the candidates’ time, and for that matter the journalists’, would have been more valuably devoted to individual encounters with audiences of actual early-state voters. The next big change in trajectory of the race is more likely to hinge on what they think rather than on some zinger that a candidate lets loose in a debate.

As it happened, there were only one or two of those in any event. There was an arresting moment when Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders volleyed over whether he had once told her in a private conversation — as she and her campaign assert — that he didn’t believe a woman could be elected president. He strenuously denied saying that. She more strenuously noted of the four men on the stage that “collectively, they have lost 10 elections,” while she and the other woman on the stage, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, “have won every single race.”

“So true,” Klobuchar said, “so true.”

There was another possibly arresting exchange not shared with the rest of the class, as Warren and Sanders appeared to have a sharp moment — she did not respond to his outstretched hand — as they exited their lecterns at debate’s end.

Otherwise, it was an evening of things you know, unless you are one of the cohort of people that didn’t care enough to follow the 2020 race even passingly in 2019, but with the turn of the calendar is ready to start acquainting yourself with the candidates and the choices they are offering.

You know that former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is very articulate, and that he, Biden and Klobuchar all think the mandatory “Medicare for All” proposals backed by Sanders are too expensive and politically and practically unworkable. You know that Buttigieg seems to get on the other candidates’ nerves a bit, especially Klobuchar’s, as they think he is trying to cut in line on the strength of smooth talk but scant experience getting things done or proving real electability against Donald Trump.

You know that smooth talk isn’t Biden’s selling point, and words can elicit reactions that vary from Well, that was fairly crisp and emphatic to Whoa, that sentence is wandering nowhere even within a single answer. His Des Moines performance seemed to land around the median — maybe a shade higher? — of previous outings.

There were elements of what seemed like fairly obvious calculation, delivered for fairly obvious reasons. Buttigieg, who has negligible support among African Americans, kept invoking support from individuals in that community and how his policies would help Democrats’ largest voting bloc, which in polls so far has been loyal to Biden. “The black voters who know me best are supporting me,” he said, invoking support from South Bend.

Warren, meanwhile, seemed to be emphasizing a pragmatic, can-do approach, evidently a rejoinder to those who might believe she is enamored with the conceptual purity of her plans but would not be effective in Washington. She emphasized executive actions to lower drug prices that she would have legal authority to carry out as soon as she becomes president, without waiting for legislation.

None of this, however, lived up to too-optimistic projections from a POLITICO headline early Tuesday that promised the “debate could be a doozy.” That prediction failed due to extra “o” — more doze than doozy.

As I write this, I hear the admonitory voice of Broder, who died in 2011, as well as those of more belligerent contemporary media critics: Why is that the test of a good debate, how colorful the exchanges or vigorous the conflict?

Some previous debates in this cycle have shown the candidates highlighting relevant differences on policy or electability without resorting to personal insults or triviality. But I’m happy to plead no contest on charges of trying to cover democracy like a sporting contest to any prosecutor who truly watched the entire debate and did not even once have to scold themselves to pay attention.

During the first debates in 2019, the sheer number of candidates gave moderators a challenge of controlling the proceedings and cutting off politicians lest they attempt to filibuster. Oddly, though, Tuesday’s moderators often acted like they had a herculean task to rein in candidates for going a little over time even when they did not seem to be speechifying or rudely ignoring rules.

“Thank you, senator,” “Thank you, mayor,” “Thank you,” “Thank you” — dozens of times in ways that interrupted relevant answers and were often distracting.

The evening ended with questions to all candidates to address their perceived vulnerability. In Sanders case, it was polls say two-thirds of voters are unenthusiastic about voting for a socialist. CNN’s Abby Phillip asked, “Doesn’t that put your chances of beating Donald Trump at risk?”

A fair point, Sanders replied, one he had not previously considered. Actually, no, that was my own fantasy dialogue as I watched the clock and pondered what I might soon be writing. Sanders’ actual answer was, “Nope,” because people would understand that his brand of socialism is about things people will like such as universal health care and fighting climate change while he would also make the case that Trump is a “pathological liar” and “a fraud,” who actually practices socialism for polluters and wealthy self-dealers.

Similarly, Biden denied that he is not tough enough to take on Trump and his penchant for insults; Buttigieg denied that he can’t expand his coalition; Klobuchar denied that her pragmatic approach is bland and uninspiring; Warren denied that she is too divisive; and billionaire Tom Steyer denied that he is just a rich guy with no other claim on people’s support.

So a debate can be helpful in getting certain things on the record. But there have been some 30 hours of Democratic debates over more than six months. At some point, proceedings must come to a close and the election really does belong to voters.

So, thank you candidates, thank you cable networks, thank you print and online partners, thank you, DNC. Just to repeat, thank you, your time is up, we will return to you when we can. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.