Yawn: The Last Pre-Iowa Democratic debate

Toby Muresianu
Jan 15 · 5 min read
The candidates in front of podiums donated by the Starship Enterprise

Well, it’s done. The last debate before…the next debate, before the New Hampshire primary. And then the next debate in Nevada, and then the one in South Carolina.

Good lord. Let’s at least make the recap quick.

This debate was slow. The crowd was dead. The mics cut in and out. CNN’s moderators asked lame, antagonistic questions. It should be 10% on Rotten Tomatoes.

It felt low energy, with few of the jokes of the last debate — and the ones that were there were literally the jokes of the last debate, repeated word for word to go with the long-stale health care debate rehashed by obligation.

It was even lead up to with some lame controversies:

  • The DNC didn’t change the criteria to allow even candidates who failed to poll at 5% in 4 of 23 polls onstage, so the Yang Gang got mad. Look, I missed his humor in this debate, but if 100 primary voters were in a room and four or fewer would want to vote for you at this point in this interminable primary…the ship has sailed. If you like him and want to vote for him, great, but if you legit can’t decide between the top six polling candidates, you aren’t seriously deciding who is going to be the presidential nominee (which, remember, is the point of all this).
  • The candidates were all white. Not great since it is obviously better to have more diversity and perspectives (and to be fair, the author of this blog is 100% white). That said, there have been a ton of debates already and time to explore issues from multiple perspectives. At this point this seems to be something political journalists care about way more than the Democratic primary electorate, which is about half nonwhite and had (and still have!) a number of qualified candidates of color to choose from — but have expressed other preferences. Blaming the DNC (itself headed by a person of color) for this feels like a weird, virtue-signaling erasure of the choices of actual voters of color.

How the Candidates Did

  • Bernie — probably the best from a straight theatrical performance standpoint. He did his usual consistent act and hit all his talking points, while other candidates were overall lukewarm. From a policy perspective I didn’t think he did as well, opposing the USMCA (the NAFTA replacement) despite its endorsements by AFL-CIO and other trade groups on environmental grounds (or maybe so that he could stake a claim as the most left of the left?). I think this is a silly position; even he acknowledged it’s a better deal than what we have now, and with a ludicrous list of things all candidates say they’ll do on Day 1 (climate change, guns, immigration, taxes…I mean, leave some time to set up your email), I think it’s important take wins and move quickly on priorities. He also said he wouldn’t give federal contracts to any businesses that shut down a factory, which seems like exactly the kind of policy that gets applause in the moment and then results in the government paying wildly more in construction costs than other countries or private industry. On the bright side for him, the debate opened with him getting a chance to mention he opposed the Iraq war, which helps his image on foreign policy — though given his past support of communist regimes and the USSR, foreign policy is a weak point for him he’s getting a pass on in the primary but won’t during the general election.
  • Buttigieg — Had good, tight answers as usual and benefited from not really getting attacked this time around (except by…Tom Steyer? Does he think it’s a literal race to the bottom?). He was in first in Iowa not long ago, and most voters are non-committed, so ignoring him could open the window for a comeback here a crack — but he’s still most likely fading from the pack.
  • Warren — was okay. Did a decent job of turning around the mini controversy about whether Bernie told her a female president couldn’t win into making a case for the overall electability of women. Had an awkward exchange where she claimed a male candidate onstage hadn’t beaten a Republican incumbent in 30 years, which Bernie objected to on the grounds that he had…29 and a half years ago. Aside from that, continually ran over her time and got awkwardly cut off which made it hard to get applause. Even with the smaller field, didn’t feel like she was as big a presence onstage as she had been in previous debates.
  • Biden — Was just generally…I hate to say it, but…sleepy. Like if there was one word you shouldn’t be, that was it. (Okay, maybe he was focused on ‘senile.’) He had overall the same ok points he’s always had and rambled too much to be convincing if (thankfully) not enough as his worst debates. He picked up a little at the end with a laugh line or two, but I think he had an opportunity to run away with the ball here and didn’t.
  • Klobuchar —Did fine. That is pretty much her slogan. Klobuchar: fine. Like a casserole at a potluck, it’ll do. She actually might be my “magic-wand” candidate at this point, since she is pragmatic while being not senile and having held national office. But she didn’t have a great debate like the last time, so it’s probably too little too late — maybe she could be chief of staff if she wanted to be, in order to ensure she got everyone the salad forks they need.
  • Steyer — I hate to say it, but did decently well. Addressed all his answers to the camera, speaking directly to the viewers at home like he does for his infomercials. He was ignored by the other candidates, but it could be at their peril — he got on the debate stage by cracking 7% in Nevada and South Carolina, two early states often ignored by the others, and could play a spoiler by pissing money into less contested states. I don’t know why he wants to, but there you go.

Anyway, that’s a wrap. Thanks for reading and see you back after the Iowa caucuses — when hopefully things get a little spicier.

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